Drug Smuggler Issued A `Cry For Help'





Drug Smuggler Issued A `Cry For Help'

BY JAY WEAVER/Published Thursday, March 1, 2001, in the Miami Herald

Robert Karns rose from his seat at the First Baptist Church choir's banquet to make an unusual confession about his life and the Lord.  He talked about the spiritual rewards of the long-established Fort Lauderdale congregation, especially his role as a shepherd in its Christmas pageant. He thanked God for opening doors for him as he tried to launch an airline in Kosovo. But the white-haired pilot, described by friends as a gentle giant because of his soft heart and six-foot-four frame, rambled through his speech last spring -- as if he were hiding something sinful.

 ``It was a cry for help that none of us caught,'' Les Cheveldayoff, a former business partner and member of First Baptist, said this week.  A few weeks later, on the evening of June 24, Karns was arrested by U.S. Customs Service agents for importing 96 kilograms of cocaine in his Cessna Caravan from Haiti through the Bahamas to Opa-locka Airport. He will be sentenced for his crime on Friday in federal court in Miami.  Karns said in an interview at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami that he needed the drug money to keep his struggling airline business aloft. And he felt relieved that he got caught. ``I knew in my heart it was wrong, but I didn't have the courage to stop,'' said Karns, 65, a father of four. ``When the Lord made it stop, the war within me was gone. I finally got peace. ``I used to be timid in sharing my faith. I'm not now. This is a blessing. I'm glad the Lord got me here.''


His attorney, John Contini, also a First Baptist member, wants U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages to show mercy and give him a three-year prison sentence. Contini said Karns lived up to his plea agreement and made the federal prosecutor's case against a Haitian drug ring involving a half-dozen defendants. Prosecutor Jonathan Loo is likely to seek a prison term of between five and six years -- about half of what the defendant would have faced had he not cooperated with authorities.  ``He was, in fact, integral in this drug operation,'' Loo said. Karns' cooperation and testimony, while helpful at trial, were not unusual for a drug suspect caught red-handed. ``Defendants do that all the time,'' Loo said.

Karns' church -- shocked but also forgiving -- has rallied behind him with prayers. The Rev. Erik Jersted said Karns' life -- as a Christian, pilot and felon -- is not as contradictory as it seems. ``There is always going to be that struggle,'' Jersted said. ``What seems to be a contradiction is not. The human heart is desperately wicked and deceitful. What keeps us from deceit and weakness is our reverence and fear of God.'' On the surface, Karns' path to prison seems improbable.

Born in Ohio, he grew up in a farming community in Iowa. His father was a high school principal and his mother a homemaker. At age 14, he scraped together enough money from odd jobs to buy a rundown plane and fix it with help from his mechanically gifted father. ``All I ever wanted to do was fly,'' Karns said. He enrolled in Ohio State University, but left after one year, entering the U.S. Air Force in 1954. While he sharpened his pilot skills, he got married and felt himself pulling closer to God. He left the Air Force after six years. ``The Lord was leading me,'' he said. ``The military was not the world for me.'' Karns embarked on an aviation career that crisscrossed the United States, Mexico and Central America. He flew cargo, mail and passenger planes. He even seeded clouds and fought forest fires. He moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1989 and flew for commuter airlines in the Caribbean.

Karns said the pain he now feels for participating in the drug conspiracy cuts deep because he knows he violated God's faith in him. He said the drug racket grew out of a legitimate airline business in Haiti, or so it seemed to him at first. His partner in Air D'ayiti was Antonin Voigt. Desperate to pay the bills on his two Cessna planes, Karns said he foolishly went along with Voigt's money-making schemes to smuggle Haitian aliens on two occasions and then drugs a half-dozen times into South Florida.

Both men got caught with four suitcases of cocaine on the evening of June 24, after Customs received a tip about their operation. Karns immediately confessed to authorities, but Voigt fled. He was later arrested and convicted. Karns struggled to explain his behavior. ``The spiritual war within me was mighty,'' he said. ``Satan had put the temptation in front of me. I really felt I needed the money for survival.'' Contini, his attorney, said Voigt played his client for a fool. Contini took his case for free, but insisted that Karns first write a letter to his three children explaining why drugs are bad. He also asked Karns to make him a promise that when he is released from prison, he must confess his sin before the First Baptist congregation. ``If Bob Karns gets a second chance, it's because he worships the God of a second chance,'' Contini said.

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