5 News has learned a little more about the background of escaped inmate Eugene Cobbs.
In 2004 Cobbs crashed a small plane carrying 520 pounds of cocaine in Wheeling. Authorities spent four years searching for Cobbs before they finally caught him in Mexico.
Officials with the U.S. Marshals service are looking for an inmate who escaped a local federal prison.
Around 4:00 Wednesday afternoon, it was discovered that Eugene Nicholas Cobbs, 42, was missing from the minimum security Federal Correctional Institution in Morgantown.
Cobbs is serving 151 months for conspiracy to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine, and for serving as an airman without an airman's certificate.
He's described as a black man who is 5'10" and weighs 210 pounds.
Anyone with information can call the U.S. Marshals service at (304) 623-0486.
WHEELING, W.Va. -- It's not often that international criminal cases fall from the sky, but that's what literally happened on a cold night four years ago when Eugene Nicholas Cobbs made the biggest mistake of his life.
An amateur pilot, he'd been sanctioned several times over the years for reckless flying, including at least once at the Allegheny County Airport, where he often refueled on his way to Philadelphia from California.
But when he wrecked his Piper Aerostar in West Virginia on Dec. 18, 2004, federal agents said he left behind a quarter ton of cocaine worth about $24 million.
That crash at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport launched a manhunt that led to Mexico, an ongoing federal investigation on both coasts stretching into South America and a pending Pennsylvania identity theft case that so far has netted 40 suspects.
Mr. Cobbs, 37, of Philadelphia, is in federal custody and scheduled for trial in March in Wheeling.
A four-year search
After years of chasing leads, federal marshals and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tracked him last spring to Valle Real, an exclusive, gated community outside of Guadalajara, where he was living with his Mexican wife and child.
Mr. Cobbs, a U.S. citizen who has used as many as five aliases supported by fake documents, was in Mexico illegally.
Mexican immigration authorities arrested him on Dec. 5 without a fight. He was extradited to Houston and then brought to West Virginia.
The U.S. attorney's office in Wheeling would not comment on the case, nor would the DEA. Mr. Cobbs' public defender did not return a call, and most of his court records are sealed.
But as they do in most federal drug cases, prosecutors are seeking a plea and trying to secure Mr. Cobbs' cooperation against others involved in the case, whoever and wherever they are. In his scheduling order, the judge set March 10 as the due date for any plea and a trial date for March 17.
No one else has been charged in the case, which involves agents in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago and possibly other cities. Mr. Cobbs certainly got around. In addition to those cities and Guadalajara, agents say he was known to frequent Las Vegas and Manhattan.
West Virginia just happened to be where he crashed.
For the Mountain State, the sheer amount of cocaine found in the plane proved unprecedented.
"I know one thing -- it was the most dope I'd ever seen," said Bernie Kazienko, the former Brooke County sheriff.
The plane contained 327 pounds of the drug packaged in blocks, some wrapped as Christmas gifts. Another 193 pounds were discovered in the nose compartment.
"This was the largest amount of cocaine we've ever dealt with," said Alex Neville, the supervisory deputy U.S. marshal in Clarksburg, who headed the hunt for Mr. Cobbs.
To agents, that kind of volume points to a sophisticated, continuing enterprise.
In addition to various state charges in Philadelphia, Mr. Cobbs and his brother, Blair V. Cobbs, have long been on the radar of federal investigators.
In a Philadelphia DEA case, according to court papers, agents said Eugene Cobbs was the intended recipient of a kilo of cocaine in 1999. The outcome of that case was unclear in those documents. In a complaint that year brought by U.S. postal inspectors, Blair Cobbs was also charged with distribution of cocaine, although the case was dismissed.
In 2002, police pulled over a car Eugene Cobbs was driving, which had been rented in a woman's name, on Interstate 95 in Baltimore and recovered $115,721 in a duffel bag. A trained drug dog alerted investigators to cocaine residue on the money, according to forfeiture documents filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland.
Police said Mr. Cobbs presented a fake California driver's license bearing the name of one of his most common aliases, Eric Wiggins.
He also had a California license and Social Security card in a third name and a Social Security card and Canadian resident card under yet another name.
Mr. Cobbs told police he was a plumber in Beverly Hills and that the money represented his life savings, but officers said they were unable to confirm any employment. Eventually, they said, he provided his real name but refused to cooperate any further.
Prosecutors initially seized the money as the proceeds of drug dealing, but eventually gave it back to Mr. Cobbs' Baltimore attorney, Ken Ravenell.
Mr. Ravenell said in court papers that he'd been unable to find his client. Contacted last week, he said he's still holding the money and hadn't realized that Mr. Cobbs was in custody.
Mr. Cobbs has bigger problems now because of his questionable skills as a pilot.
He was known to favor small airports without towers, where he could quickly swipe a credit card to buy gas and be on his way.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which had his plane's identifying tail number on a watch list, has taken enforcement action against him four times since 2001 for various violations, including reckless flying, disregarding air traffic control signals and lying about his medical status.
At least one of those incidents occurred in November 2003 at the Allegheny County Airport. Federal agents suspect he stopped there regularly to refuel while hauling cocaine from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.
On Nov. 6, 2003, according to FAA records, Mr. Cobbs took off without clearance from the tower, ignored ground signals and committed several other infractions.
Because of that incident and another in 2001, the FAA wanted him to take his flying exam again. When he refused, the agency obtained an emergency suspension order in March 2004 and he surrendered his license.
But that didn't stop him from flying.
On Dec. 18 of that year, he was flying from Compton, Calif., to Philadelphia when he apparently had a problem and needed to land quickly. At about 10 p.m., he attempted to touch down at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport, where he'd never been. It was a snowy night and the tower was closed.
Thomas Tominack, the airport manager, said most responsible pilots can turn on tower lights by themselves by radio-operated remote control. Mr. Cobbs either didn't know how to do that or purposely chose not to so he wouldn't attract attention.
Based on skid marks and scars on the ground, the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA concluded that he tried to land while using only the lights on the side of the terminal building as a guide.
But he overshot the runway. His plane skidded off the runway and plunged down a wooded hillside. Airport personnel who responded found the plane smashed up but no blood in the cockpit. Mr. Cobbs, they said, was lucky to survive.
"He could do that 100 times and live once," marveled Mr. Tominack, a pilot.
Mr. Cobbs didn't head to the terminal to seek help. Instead, he flagged down a local resident driving by the airport entrance and asked, "Where am I?"
According to an affidavit by Robert Manchas, a DEA agent in Wheeling, he flashed a roll of $100 bills to the driver and hitched a ride to a Holiday Inn in Weirton, about 20 miles away. There, the affidavit said, he produced a fake Pennsylvania driver's license in the name of Marquis Tracy Munroe and paid cash for two nights.
Investigators don't know where he went after that.
But agents traced phone calls from the motel room to numbers related to Mr. Cobbs in Los Angeles and matched the photo on the Marquis Munroe license with one on a California driver's license listed under the name of Eric Wiggins.
While Mr. Cobbs went into hiding for the next four years, the Pennsylvania attorney general's office took note of the fake licenses and launched its own investigation into how he got them.
IDs led to indictments
As a result of the fake-ID investigation, dozens of people -- many of them felons -- have been indicted on forgery and other charges in statewide grand jury presentments in the past two years.
State agents said most of the fraudulent IDs bore the names of children of welfare recipients in Philadelphia, some of whom sold their children's Social Security information for profit.
In Eugene Cobbs' case, agents discovered that Marquis Munroe is a 13-year-old boy born in August 1995. His mother, Marcella Brooks, told the grand jury that "she did not give anyone permission to use any of her son's identifying information, and that she did not know how anyone could have obtained that information." She was not charged in the case.
Agents said Mr. Cobbs used a fake Arkansas birth certificate and Social Security card and a fake letter from the Social Security Administration to acquire the license in Marquis' name.
Although most of the defendants in the case are not connected to each other, some knew each other.
Another of those charged, Franklyn Allen, of Philadelphia, pulled a similar scheme using the name of Marquis Munroe's older brother, Brandon Munroe, who was born in September 1991.
Agents said that when they arrested Mr. Allen, he initially said he was Brandon Munroe.
Blair Cobbs was also involved in identity theft, according to the attorney general's office.
A resident of both Los Angeles and Philadelphia, he has long used the name Ronald Johnson, his alias in the 1999 federal case. According to the state grand jury, he supplied false information to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to get a license in that name after his real license was suspended for numerous traffic violations.
In testimony before the state House last year, a nonprofit group called the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License singled out the Cobbs brothers as examples of why PennDOT must improve its procedures for issuing licenses.
"This downed aircraft on just one trip held enough cocaine to feed the addictions of 2,400 American hard-core cocaine users for one full year," coalition spokesman Neil Berro testified.
"The number of suspects in this ring continues to grow, starting at 22 and quickly moving to 34 to currently 40 individuals involved. All these suspects have two things in common, ID theft charges and extensive past criminal records."
The attorney general's office has filed the charges in three phases since 2007 and says more are coming.
"The investigation is ongoing," said Lauren Bozart, assistant press secretary in the attorney general's office. "[Eugene] Cobbs was the spark."