March 15, 1995 in Nation/World

Copters In Your Face? Idahoans Say Back Off

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Stories of armed agents in helicopters flying over people’s homes are turning out to be more than just rumors.

Some Bonner County residents saw the choppers last summer and say they were flying low enough to scare horses and cattle and for their occupants to look in people’s windows.

“I heard a helicopter coming in low and thought it was going to crash,” said Steve Cote, who lives up Gold Creek Road and works for the Bonner Soil Conservation Service.

“I ran in to grab my fire extinguisher, and lo and behold, it was in front of my picture window with two guys looking at me. It scared the bejesus out of me.”

The incident occurred in August when the Idaho Department of Law Enforcement was using National Guard helicopters to search for marijuana crops.

Wayne Longo, a special agent with the state Department of Law Enforcement, said the flights occur annually. The helicopters are not armed, the agents inside carry only sidearms and the pilots fly by strict regulations that keep them a safe distance off the ground, he said.

“The pilots are well-aware of the minimums, and I can only speak for what we did,” Longo said, denying any harassment occurred. “Maybe these people saw some other helicopters.”

Cote was angry about the incident he witnessed, saying the helicopter was flying low enough to take tops off some of his trees and spook horses in a corral.

He said little about the incident at the time, fearing people would think him a crackpot. But last month at a meeting with three local legislators he detailed his run-in with the helicopter.

Several other people contacted Cote afterward with similar stories from last August. The residents are now videotaping statements of their encounters and asking legislators to stop the harassment.

“I don’t mind the drug agents doing their job if they do it right. But they don’t need to be scaring the hell out of people,” said 39-year-old Rick Gilbert, who also saw a lowflying helicopter last summer.

Gilbert, who lives northeast of Sandpoint, said the dark green helicopter flew about 70 feet off the ground outside his house.

“It didn’t dawn on me at first what was happening, but it was not a very nice feeling to have a helicopter with two armed men staring down at me.”

Donna Keeley, 42, lives off Pack River Road. She saw the same thing.

“I heard a helicopter and walked outside. It dropped to about 15 feet off the ground and just sat there.”

Keeley said two men dressed in green jumpsuits and helmets stared at her before the helicopter took off.

“The more I thought about it, the madder I got,” she said. Keeley called the police, county commissioners, Fairchild Air Force Base and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Keeley said an agent from the DEA called her back several days later and told her the helicopters were not theirs, but part of the Idaho Department of Law Enforcement’s marijuana flyovers.

“I’m not some weirdo in the woods, and I don’t do drugs,” Keeley said. “This was a total intimidation deal, and I don’t want it to happen again.”

Resident Bill Smyth videotaped statements from Gilbert, Cote and Keeley. He is sending the information to U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho.

“Our legislators said they wanted documentation of the incidents and that is what we are doing,” said Smyth. “Some people are skeptical because it’s never happened to them, but these people are not kooks.”

Smyth said he and others want something done about the harassment, but don’t want to keep drug agents from doing their jobs.

“We need to come up with something both sides can live with. If they want to fly over and take pictures of my house, fine, but let’s have them stay out of people’s windows and a reasonable distance off the ground.”

Smyth worries some angry residents may start taking pot shots at helicopters they think are invading their privacy.

“We don’t need to fly off the handle about this. We just need to address the problem and deal with it.”

Chenoweth is holding a hearing in Boise Friday to hear complaints from people who have experienced excessive government force.

“We are inviting all those who have a gripe with government agents and want to see if there is a problem,” said Chenoweth spokesman Khris Bershers.

The hearing was prompted by a search of a Lemhi County ranch by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents.

The three armed agents were investigating a wolf killing that occurred on the ranch in January. Residents also reported agents trespassing on ranches to inspect grazing areas.

“My concern … is not the idea of phantom black helicopters invading Idaho … but the blatant disregard for private property rights by federal agents,” Chenoweth said in a letter outlining her concerns.


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