This is it. This is the way San Felipe was almost a generation ago. The power is out, night has fallen and in every direction there’s darkness as far as the eye can see.
Whether Mexican or American, shoulders shrug and arms go up in feigned disbelief, knowing all the while anything can happen down here. Any wayward helicopter or plane can drop a blanket of darkness over an entire valley and perhaps compel its population of friends and strangers, if only for one evening, to adopt older and quainter ways of communication.
A helicopter that was flying over the Baja 1000 route came down today, right before 3PM, leaving a death toll of two, plus two other people in critical condition.
January 30, 2008 UPDATE
The Helicopter Crash proceedings from the reports from an American helicopter pilot supporting racers from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas:
""From the security of our [race organization name deleted] command post in Cabo San Lucas we were tracking the movement of casino owner Roger Norman in his trophy truck. He was making tracks through Valle de Trinidad when we heard the chatter on our Weatherman radio. “There has been a helicopter crash near mile marker 127. At least two people are dead…and several are injured. It’s believed to be the race helicopter for the Aztec Warriors race team.” Roger had only passed through there seconds before.
That moment would ignite a chain of events that would only add to the mystique surrounding the infamous Baja 1000, the world’s most prestigious and dangerous off-road race. Since 1967 the Wild West frontier of Baja California has lured American icons such as Steve McQueen, James Garner, Parnelli Jones, and Ivan “The Ironman” Stewart. Modern-day legends such as Robbie Gordon, Jesse James, Patrick Dempsey, and Jeremy McGrath continue that tradition.
This year the fabled race was hyped up for its 40th anniversary. To commemorate the milestone it was extended by a distance of over a 1/3 more than last year, and would span from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas…1296.39 miles. The time limit to finish was 56 hours.
[deleted] Adventures, was attempting to achieve their own milestone by entering off-road race cars. More of an innovative race team, professional athletes, and adventurous celebrities can compete with reliable, well-prepared race cars and complete event coordination. Their goal to finish 18 of 18 cars.
With an army of committed staff both north and south of the border, [deleted] had already experienced success twice before finishing 100% of their entrants…an impressive feat in a race where typically only 50% of the competitors finish. In this race, however, [deleted] the owners knew it was time to raise the standard in the area of race management. With this many cars in this long of a race, they knew the odds were stacked against them more than ever before.
They incorporated the most modern communications equipment, which due to the vastly unpopulated terrain of Baja California consisted heavily of satellite-run tracking, two-way radios, and internet. This was equipment that had never been utilized to this degree in a large-scale competitive racing organization. With the high costs associated with satellite use, however, they had to get creative in being able to manage 126 drivers and 250 crew members spread out over almost 1000 miles in 18 race cars, over 60 chase vehicles, six planes, and a couple helicopters.
That’s how we, a group of Southern California firefighters, found ourselves spread throughout the Baja Peninsula. Utilizing a fire department-based incident command system, our team of 12 experienced firefighters (with racing and Baja experience) were recruited to run [deleted] race operations during the allotted 56 hour time frame. Along with the command center in Cabo, there would be two comm posts spaced out evenly throughout Baja…one in Catavina and one in Loreto. In addition there would be 24-hour air relay coverage with two planes leap-frogging down the Baja in shifts.
As night came and went on Day One we found ourselves busy dispatching chase trucks to race cars needing tires, suspension parts, transmissions, and a variety of other problems resulting from the rugged terrain. In only ten hours we had logged 34 incidents.
Then, in the middle of the night we got word of something occurring back near the starting line in Ensenada. Two dozen men with machine guns had pulled up to the city morgue in blacked-out SUV’s. They had barged in and snatched the body of one of the men killed in the helicopter crash earlier that day. A gunfight ensued on the streets with the local police and before it was over two officers were killed. With the wives and families of some of our team members still in Ensenada there was definitely concern, but the overwhelming question was…who were the guys in that helicopter really?
Daylight brought the second of the three day race. Fortunately there were few major incidents and chase crews were able to resolve the standard problems quickly. They were consistently able to get the drivers back on the road, many times within a half hour of breaking down. It was impressive work in a setting where access is difficult and distance is measured in hundred-mile stretches.
Also, during the day we found out the explanation for the shoot out in Ensenada the night before: Apparently there was a last-minute trophy truck entered in the race by a team calling themselves the Aztec Warriors. They registered a chase helicopter as well and had already drawn attention with the presence of machine gun toting guards. Regardless, they had passed SCORE’s inspection and were entered in the race.
When the helicopter crashed the sun was low and was obscuring power lines traversing the course. At speed the Jet Ranger ran into the wires…and on video it appeared to be slapped down tail first by a giant invisible hand. The pilot and co-pilot survived, but the two passengers in the back were killed. It was discovered after the commando-style corpse breakout that one of the men killed was Leon Hinojosa, a.k.a. "El Abulón,” (The Abalone), the purported leader of the Arellano Felix drug cartel. It was believed they had entered the trophy truck and helicopter as a method of moving contraband undetected, using the race as cover. Expectedly, the trophy truck vanished after the crash.
Despite the high degree of peripheral drama, however, the race continued and as night fell for the second time the activity shifted back to it. At one point SFFD firefighter Marc Pearson marked our field around Loreto (mile marker 920) and found that all but two of the BC cars were within a 60 miles stretch…and the race was 70% over with almost a day to spare. It seemed that the combined efforts of the communication and chase crews were going to achieve our goal of finishing all 18 cars.
We were barely done patting ourselves on the back when Oceanside FD Captain Terry Collis received a call from one of our chase vehicles. They were near mile marker 980 with BC2, actor/racer Patrick Dempsey’s sponsored car, and the co-driver (name unknown) was exhausted. His relief from the last pit had failed to show…he had already been in the car for 24 hours. He was over it. He wanted to drive the car to the nearest airport…park it…and fly home. Game over. This incident would become one of the most dramatic and personal as the driver (Tanner Foust, Drift/Rally champion; X-Games Gold Medalist) and I all weighed in on the situation. The incident took about eight hours to resolve and became just another example of how the Baja 1000 pushes people beyond their limits.
No sooner had we resolved the BC2 car issue did we get a report from another team that the BFGoodrich car, BC13, was involved in a serious accident. The car was being driven by Bud Brutsman, creator of the TV shows Overhaulin’ and Rides. For at least 15 minutes we couldn’t get any information. We didn’t know if they had been mowed down by a trophy truck or had center-punched a palm tree. We dispatched Air 2 to see if they could get within VHF range to get a response. BC13 was also being filmed for a feature-length documentary called “Chasing Baja”, so we knew there had to be a film crew in the vicinity. #2 got in range they discovered there were no injuries, but the entire left side of the car was destroyed. Once again our hope of finishing all cars dissipated. Every single component on that side needed to be replaced. It took an hour to locate what would amount to five chase vehicles that had all the parts. They all converged on the accident site, most with a two-hour ETA. It was almost midnight and they were less than 100 miles from the finish line.
Meanwhile two of our planes, Air 1 and 2, were experiencing their own excitement as they took turns relaying the hectic radio traffic and landing for fuel. At one point Newport FD Lifeguard Captain and pilot Josh Van Egmond was descending into what Orange County firefighter Bret Clark perceived as total darkness. Then, about 100 feet above the ground some headlights came on illuminating a short, dirt runway. As a man with a sombrero fueled the plane from some rusting, dented drums Bret noticed a group of headlights racing towards them. Josh hurriedly shuffled the man away, cranked the plane, and took off before they could reach them. A close call? Who knows.
By now BC17, driven by Jim Christensen, was pulling into Cabo taking the checkered flag as the winner of the 2007 SCORE Baja 1000’s BC Division. The first overall vehicle to cross the line was the 1x Honda motorcycle of Robby Bell with a 10 hour lead, followed by Mark Post in the Riviera trophy truck only an hour behind.
John McInnis’ BC15, the Alabama Motorsports Park car, came in second, and after that most of the BC pack funneled in at hour-or-so increments. BC16, made a dramatic entry as it died only a hundred yards short of the finish line. SCORE owner Sal Fish looked on as driver Paul Thacker and his co-driver pushed the car across the finish line, straining and chugging Monster’s all the way to the checkered flag. Around the same time Jesse James crossed the finish line in his Monster Garage trophy truck, finally finishing a Baja 1000 in his third attempt. Roger, who had experienced some transmission trouble in the middle of the night, was able to get it replaced and finished as well. He ended up finishing 18th out of the 29 trophy trucks that had entered.
[Added by the Editor: BC13 had run into a plam tree and demolished half of the race car. At one of our favorite spots on the peninsula, the "Chasing Baja" project accomplished the Baja 1000 40th Anniversary Ultimate Baja Fail. Next time BFG, call the experts to get you through that section]
After several hours of CPR on the demolished BC13 the chase crews were able to revive it with a completely new left side. The film crew said it made for some impressive footage. (After the race it was the only car I really wanted to see.) As it made its way along the final 100 miles we had a warning that a new booby trap had been set approximately 300 yards before the finish line, with a 20 foot drop. What’s ironic is that we had also started the race with a similar “pitfall” booby trap.[Welcome to Baja Racing!]
After avoiding the fate of being abandoned BC2 rallied for 300 more miles and was the last BC car to cross the finish line, with about six hours to spare. Waiting at the finish line…for last place…was one of the largest crowds that had gathered to watch a Baja 1000 finisher. By finishing under the allotted time frame BC2 helped make history.
Three days later all the race drivers and crew were packing to head home. Most everybody was exhausted from endless celebration, which included an all-out VIP party hosted by Baja Safari, at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
While most of the crew were either flying commercially or driving (ouch!) home, I had the opportunity to co-pilot one of the helicopters back to San Diego. Myself and Terry hopped in Dave Martz’s Bell Jet Ranger and, along with two other helo’s, we made our way out of Cabo.
Seeing the span of Baja California from less than 100 feet was nothing short of magical…especially from the vantage of three helicopters in formation. The flight was estimated to take eight hours, and we had to make it before sunset because helicopters aren’t allowed to fly at night in Baja. (For many reasons, one being to prevent drug running) We skimmed the surf up the Pacific side, and then crossed over to the glassy Sea of Cortez side to fuel in Loreto. One of the helicopters had an NBC High Definition cam on the front and the cameraman got some amazing footage of us flying. Because of the distance we would have to fuel three more times before reaching the US, which meant we would have to fuel from 55 gallon drums that had been stored for us. We completely dusted the entire town (and several of its citizens) of San Ignacio as we stopped for fuel and food. There’s something incredible about dropping out of the sky for lunch in some remote place.
Our next stop was a ranch outside Catavina, a small town in the middle of Baja about 400 miles south of the border. The owner of the ranch had an agreement with San Diego-based Corporate Helicopters to store a few fuel drums there. We buzzed the town and landed in a tiny clearing surrounded by large cactus. An old man and his grandson came out of nowhere in a rusted out Toyota pickup to watch. As we tipped over the drums and rolled them through the silt to the helo’s we heard another truck approaching. This time it wasn’t just casual observers. It was a Humvee with a dozen anxious looking soldiers armed with machine guns. They piled out and completely encircled us. A young officer approached us and started barking questions in Spanish. Tim Sears, another pilot, had the best Spanish so we left all the talking to him. We continued to fuel but the situation was a little nerve racking. When they pulled up the old man and boy suddenly disappeared. That left just us and the soldiers. No other witnesses. I thought back to the story Bret told of the headlights rushing towards them when they were fueling at night.
We realized that they were most likely antsy due to the Arellano Felix cartel helicopter incident. They searched all the helo’s and made a half-hearted attempt at a shakedown. Problem was we didn’t have anything. Fortunately Mandy Patterson, the VP of Operations at Corporate, came up with the proper documentation to satisfy the officer.
We were able to leave Catavina without incident; however the delay gave us another problem. At the rate and distance we had to travel we were going to run out of daylight. Given our experience with the military all we wanted to do was get across the border. As it was we were going to run out of light a half hour shy of Ensenada.
Two hours later we watched the sun dip beneath the horizon, which happened to be obscured by a thick blanket of fog. Not only were we going to be flying into Ensenada at night, we were going to do so with little visibility.
Chip Page, one of other pilots, had the fastest helicopter (an Astar) so he sped ahead. He was going to contact the Ensenada control tower to see if we would get permission to land directly on the lawn of the Hotel Corona in Ensenada. At this point all any of us wanted was a cold beer and a shot of tequila. Thankfully, the tower was understanding and allowed us to land at the hotel provided we return in the morning to close our flight plan.
We flew over the airport and past the Ensenada hospital. The fog was starting to set and with all the power lines in the vicinity it was without a doubt a dangerous landing. Ultimately we fit all three helo’s in a tight, grassy area with high, secure fences. The best part was that the hotel bar was only 20 feet away with about 20 patrons all gawking at us through the window. Within five minutes we were alongside them with shots of chilled Patron lined up.
After checking in we decided to go out to dinner. As we walked along the main drag in Ensenada we noticed several military and police cars speeding around, apparently looking for someone. We didn’t care, though. Our day was done.
The next morning we woke up to pounding on the door. It was the NBC cameraman with an armful of Mexican newspapers…with Tim’s black Astar on the front page…twice. “We have to get out of here!” he said. The headline translated into: “The Presence of Helicopters Alarm Police- Believed to be Assault Commandos”
We knew the police and military in Ensenada would still be touchy after the police slayings that had occurred only days before. Their association with helicopters obviously didn’t help either. As the receptionist at the hotel front desk translated the article it became clear that “touchy” didn’t even start to describe the tension in Ensenada.
When we flew in the night before we passed over the hospital, under cover of both night and fog. What we didn’t know is that the hospital was being protected by the military because the surviving members of the helicopter crash were being treated there. And after the obvious lengths the people involved were willing to go for corpses, they feared the worst for the live ones.
When we passed overhead they immediately assumed we were an assault team coming to grab the living members of the crash. After all, in Baja only criminals fly helicopters at night. The atmosphere was so tense they didn’t even think to contact the control tower to find out if they knew anything.
The military, as well as local and federal police, were dispatched throughout the city to locate the whereabouts of the helicopters. Meanwhile, the military barricaded the hospital with tanks and armored cars. They had no idea their suspects were the gringos right in front of them casually strolling down Avenida Lopez Mateos looking for street tacos.
Eventually they figured it out, and they came to the hotel and saw the helicopters weren’t commando raiders. Interestingly, they didn’t even come and wake us up.
When the fog lifted we flew to the Ensenada airport and closed our flight plan. The soldiers knew what had happened and were laughing at us. At…not with…
We flew over a 747 jet landing at Tijuana International Airport and landed at the customs area at Brown Field. Finally, the trip that seemed it would never end…did.
A couple of days later, this time from the security of my own home, I flipped on CNN and saw footage of a long armored transport traveling through Mexico City with the survivors of the Arellano Felix cartel helicopter crash being moved from Ensenada. They mentioned our "false alarm" and how it was enough to warrant their relocation.
The 40th Anniversary of the running of the Baja 1000 was one for the record books in several different ways. Record-making finishes, helicopter crashes, mangled race cars, shoot-outs, and street tacos con cerveza.""
January 29, 2008 UPDATE
November 13th a Bell 206A-1 helicopter
(serial #41754) bearing tail number XB1MN
that was monitoring the 40th running of the
“Baja 1000” auto race between Ensenada and
Los Cabos, Baja California Sur crashed near
the “Mike Sky Ranch” in the vicinity of
kilometer 136 of the Ensenada – Valle de
Trinidad highway. The helicopter fell less
than 300 meters from the highway. According
to witnesses, the aircraft flew into a high
voltage power line supplying electricity to the
town of San Felipe. As a result to the crash
power was out in San Felipe for over five hours
before being restored around 8:10 p.m.
Initial reports indicated that two passengers
tentatively identified as Israel Romero Reyes,
age 33, and Pablo González G. died in the
crash. The pilot, Isaac Sarabia Roque, and
copilot, Rodolfo Calvillo Ibarra, were
seriously injured. They were transferred to
Ensenada by a helicopter (tail number
N549SA) belonging to Score International Off
Road Racing and then taken to the Hospital
Velmar medical facility’s intensive care unit
The bodies of the two dead passengers were
taken to the Ensenada morgue where they
arrived around 8:00 p.m. on the day of the
crash. Efforts began almost immediately to
confirm their true identity as rumors began to
circulate that they were actually
narcotraffickers associated with the Arellano
Félix Organization. According to data
filed with the race organizers they were
owners of an Ensenada radio communications
company located near the intersection of
Calles La Cortés and México.
The mystery surrounding the crash intensified
on Wednesday evening. Around 8:40 p.m.
that evening, a group of armed men arrived at
the Ensenada morgue in a convoy of fifteen
vehicles and stole one of the bodies, that
tentatively identified as Pablo González from
the facility. They also forced two employees
of the morgue named Juan Sigala and
Salomón Carlos to accompany them as
hostages as they fled the city. At some point
the vehicles in the convoy may have dispersed
with some taking the coastal route north
toward Tijuana while others took the
Ensenada – Tecate highway. An alert went out
to all police units in the area and around 9:10
p.m. Ensenada Municipal Police officers
manning an aid station in the town of
Francisco Zarco in the Valle de Trinidad
located near kilometer 76.5 of the highway,
approximately 30 kilometers northeast of
Ensenada, attempted to stop the group of
vehicles that was heading toward Tecate.
They may not have aware of the alert. Their
effort to stop the vehicles was met with
gunfire and two officers, Enrique Lemus
Hinojosa and Salvador González Quijano
perished in the exchange. Authorities later
recovered over two hundred spent cartridges
at the site.
The two morgue employees who had been
abducted were found several hours later in
Tijuana after having been released by their
captors along Bulevar Insurgentes.
It was later unofficially indicated that the
stolen body of Pablo González had been
identified by a team forensic experts sent from
Mexico City by the Federal Attorney
General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la
República / PGR) before the theft as actually
that of Francisco Merardo León Hinojosa,
a.k.a. “El Abulón”.
He belonged to the
infamous narco-juniors of Tijuana and at one
time was suspected of membership on the
AFO governing council. Individuals claiming
to be members of the “González” family had
requested release of the body to them during
the day of the theft, but their request was
denied when they could not present
documentation confirming a familial
relationship. That identification was
questionable from the outset and soon a
separate rumor, also unconfirmed, began to
circulate suggesting the deceased was not
León Hinojoso but rather the son of María
Alicia Arellano Félix and consequently a
nephew of the cartel leaders.
The Ensenada Morgue
There has been no further information
concerning the second crash victim who was
tentatively identified as Israel Romo Reyes.
Authorities seemed satisfied that it is his true
name was found and released the body. The body was
released to relatives in Ensenada. Preliminary
inquiries indicated that the downed helicopter
had been rented by “Pablo González” on behalf
of a company named Xtreme Team based in
Tijuana from a business named “Del Río Helicopters”,
located at kilometer 115 of the Trans-peninsular
Highway in the vicinity of the former Ejido
González supposedly paid US $24,000 for 30
hours of flight time.
The helicopter was reportedly monitoring and videotaping
the progress of race car number 133 driven by Carlos García of
Tijuana who was part of the Azteca Warrior team.
Unconfirmed reports indicate he is now in custody, but
there has been no official information published concerning
his status and he may well be a fugitive. At the request
of the PGR, the Eleventh Federal District Penal Court
issued a house arrest order on November 18th for
the pilot and co-pilot of the aircraft.
On Wednesday November 21st Sarabia was taken
from the Hospital Velmar to the nearby “El Ciprés”
military air filed and flown to Mexico City for further
questioning and the possible filling of formal criminal
charges bye the PGR’s Organized Crime Specialized
Investigation Division (Subprocuraduría de Investigación
Especializada en Delincuencia Organizada (SIEDO).
According to Zeta, the transfer was rushed to
safeguard Sarabia from an AFO plot to kill him
before he could cooperate with authorities. Calvillo
remained at the hospital where he is scheduled to
undergo surgery on the spinal column to treat
injuries sustained in the crash.
[Comment: The name Fernando has been floated
as that of the alleged Arellano nephew. María Alicia is
not known to have a son by that name; however,
her sister Norma Isabel has a son named Fernando
Sánchez Arellano (born c.1974) who in turn has a
young son also named Fernando (born c. 2000). That
child is believed to be the minor on board the
sports fishing vessel “Doc Holliday” when Francisco Javier
Arellano Félix was captured by the U.S. Coast Guard.]
The "Doc Holiday" Story will be EXPOSED NEXT
(so it took two years!)
Stay Tuned to Baja Racing News.com
Baja 1000 Helicopter Crash Videos
HELICOPTER CRASH STORY GOES SIDEWAYS:
SAN DIEGO -- Fifty heavily armed men cruised the streets of Ensenada on Wednesday night in an ominous show of force usually reserved for carrying out kidnappings of businessmen or organized crime rivals.
But this convoy of 14 vehicles pulled up in front of the city morgue on Calle Guadalupe. The attackers stormed the building, snatched a corpse, loaded it into a vehicle and sped off through the hills toward Tecate, where two police officers had set up a roadblock.
"They tried to stop them. The gunmen answered with bullets," said Edgar Lopez, a spokesman for the Baja California state police.
Even by the grim standards of violent crime in Baja California, the body-snatching incident set a bizarre precedent. Federal authorities are investigating whether the body is that of drug cartel figure Francisco Merardo Leon Hinojosa, nicknamed El Abulon -- The Abalone.
The gunmen fired more than 120 rounds from AR-15s and AK-47s at the officers, killing them before escaping near the wine-growing region of the Valle de Guadalupe. Hundreds of state and federal police officers followed in a fruitless manhunt.
In a crime-weary region where masked gunmen often leave a trail of beheaded or torture-marked bodies, people could only speculate on a motive.
"Maybe it was sentimental reasons," said David A. Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. The attackers, said Shirk and others, may have wanted to ensure that the man's funeral was attended by his friends. "If he was buried by authorities, they would expose themselves by coming out for any kind of public funeral," Shirk said.
The string of events occurred during the Baja 1000, which began Tuesday. The popular off-road race from Ensenada to Los Cabos draws hundreds of competitors from the United States. Among the last-minute entries were two men who registered a black pick-up truck called Azteca Warrior, according to media reports and Ensenada city spokesman Daniel Vargas.
One of the men, registered as Pablo Gonzalez, was tracking the race team's progress in a helicopter when it crashed into high-tension wires, killing Gonzalez and another passenger and injuring two pilots.
Two people who said they were relatives of Gonzalez showed up at the morgue Wednesday and tried to claim the body, but were not allowed to take it, authorities said. A few minutes later, the gunmen struck.
Authorities are investigating whether Gonzalez was really Leon Hinojosa, an alleged lieutenant of the Arellano Felix drug cartel.
Mexican authorities believe Leon Hinojosa took on a larger role after the cartel's suspected leader, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, was arrested last year by U.S. officials. He was sentenced this month to life in prison.
Dozens of federal and state police officers Friday guarded the morgue and the hospital where the two helicopter pilots were being treated. More than 1,000 mourners attended the funeral Mass for the two officers, one of whom had five children.
THE ORIGINAL STORY:
TWO KILLED TWO INJURED
LINK TO BAJA CRIME WAVE 9