"Mena tires of rumors" By Michael Haddigan THE ARKANSAS GAZETTE June 28, 1988 MENA Tucked into a corner of the Ouachita Mountains in western Arkansas, Mena was once known primarily for the beauty of its surroundings. Then Barry Seal came to town. Seal, who authorities believe was one of the most successful cocaine smugglers in the United States, first began appearing at Mena's Intermountain Regional Airport in 1981 for repairs and maintenance on his small fleet of planes. By the time he died in a storm of machine gun fire at Baton Rouge in February 1986, a considerable body of lore surrounded him and his activities in Mena. Rumors and tales have survived him and many in Mena are tired of hearing about what Seal may or may not have done in their town. But Seal cast a long shadow. "They continually bring it up before Grand Jury after Grand Jury and they have found that there is nothing there," Mayor Jerry Montgomery said last week. "I wish one way or another that it would be resolved." Rudy Furr, the airport manager, said all the attention is giving the city a bad name. "Quite honestly, I am tired of it," he said. "The community has gotten a black eye for it." Two congressional committees, the General Accounting Office, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the Arkansas State Police are now examining allegations that Seal flew guns to the Nicaraguan contras and smuggled cocaine on return trips. Investigators said they also will be looking into Seal's activities and associations at the Mena airport. Furr said he believes the airport is still under surveillance by authorities. "For heaven's sake, the man has been dead for two years," he said. The airport is now one of the largest aircraft refurbishing centers in the United States. Along with the poultry industry, a cut and sew operation, an electric motors plant and the timber industry, the airport is one of the major employers in Polk County. Furr said the 19 businesses at the airport employ 325 people and do more than $2.2 million in business each year. Planes from all over the world come to the airport, Furr said, for refitting, engine repair, maintenance, interior upholstering and wood work and painting. "There are probably aircraft from Africa, Asia and Central and South America on the airport right now," he said. But why do they come to Mena? The city has a population of just over 5,000 and its remote location doesn't make one think of it as a logical place for a major airplane service center. "Our success story is very competitive prices, a quality product and the fastest turn-around time in the industry," Furr said. Since Mena isn't in a congested area, planes can come in and out easier and labor costs are less than in metropolitan areas. The operations at the airport started small and one thing just built on another, Furr and others said. New runway planned Mayor Montgomery said that when a planned $5 million airport improvement project is complete sales at the airport will skyrocket. The improvements will include a 6,000-foot east-west runway that can accommodate larger jet aircraft. The airport, he said, is sandwiched between Rich Mountain, the highest point in the Ouachitas, and two other mountains to the north and a 2,220-foot mountain to the south. The existing north- south runway, he said, makes takeoffs and landings difficult. Part of the improvement project will be a 4,000-foot grass "tactical runway" that the city will offer to the military for practice runs by C-130s and other cargo planes. In October 1987, the Mena airport was used as the headquarters for Army anti-aircraft units taking part in Air Force exercises. Army Major Frank Theissing, public affairs officer at Fort Chaffee, said there will likely be more exercises at the airport in the future. "The people of Mena have let it be known that we would be welcome," he said. Seal affair hurts business But Montgomery said the Barry Seal affair has hurt business at the airport. "It has stymied the potential growth out there," he said. "At least it has slowed it down." Furr said industrial prospects frequently ask about Seal during tours of the airport. Montgomery said one "well known national company" recently reconsidered a decision to locate at Mena because of the notoriety Seal earned for the airport. And Fred L. Hampton of Rich Mountain Aviation, where much of the attention has been focused, said the Barry Seal affair has prevented him from expanding his business. Furr blames local law enforcement officers for perpetuating the Seal allegations. Furr said the Seal affair was one of the reasons why he ran for sheriff against A. L. Hadaway in 1984. "He beat me fair and square," Furr said. Hadaway, who now runs High Performance Aircraft Engines, Inc., near the airport, ended nearly 20 years in law enforcement when he resigned in July 1986. Hadaway, former president of the Arkansas Sheriff's Association, cited disagreements with the Quorum Court as his reason for resigning. But, he said, Barry Seal also had something to do with it. "I can arrest an old hillbilly out here with a pound of marijuana and a local judge and jury would send him to the penitentiary," Hadaway said. "But a guy like Seal flies in and out with hundreds of pounds of cocaine and he stays free." Last of a series.
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