OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – An Oklahoma City woman is facing decades in prison after being convicted of various federal crimes related to an international drug trafficking conspiracy.
Officials say 60-year-old Debra Lynn Mercer-Erwin was convicted of money laundering, wire fraud, conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine, and conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine knowing it would be imported into the United States.
According to court documents, Mercer-Erwin conspired with others to purchase and register aircraft under foreign corporations in order to distribute cocaine.
Officials say non-US citizens are allowed to register an aircraft with the FAA if the aircraft is placed in a trust that is managed by a U.S. trustee. In that regard, Mercer-Erwin was the owner of Wright Brothers Aircraft Title and Aircraft Guaranty Corporation.
Investigators say AGC acted as a trustee to over 1,000 aircrafts with foreign owners, which allowed them to receive an “N” tail number for their aircrafts.
Authorities say the “N” tail number is valuable because foreign countries are less likely to inspect a U.S.-registered aircraft for airworthiness or force down an American aircraft.
“In the aircraft world, planes registered in the United States and displaying a ‘N’ tail-number, are coveted as being properly vetted and trusted to legally operate around the world. Mercer-Erwin found ways to exploit the registration process in order to profit from illegally obtained money being paid for her services,” said U. S. Attorney Brit Featherston. “Mercer-Erwin became a drug dealer when she became aware of planes she had registered were being used to transport large quantities of cocaine. Mercer-Erwin knew that many of her clients were in the illegal drug business and she hid their identities and the sources of their money in order to reap a large profit. She became a money launderer when she created fake sales of planes that were not actually for sale in order to hide and move drug money. Transnational criminal organizations require assistance to operate in the U.S. and Mercer-Erwin facilitated the drug dealing by exploiting the plane registration process.”
According to prosecutors, several of the illegally registered and exported aircraft were used by transnational criminal organizations in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico to smuggle large quantities of cocaine destined for the United States.
Prosecutors say Mercer-Erwin disguised the true identity of the foreign owners, along with falsifying and forging documents.
“This investigation and successful prosecution serves as an example of how federal, state, and international law enforcement agencies work together to take down those involved in large scale money laundering in support of international drug trafficking organizations,” said Special Agent in Charge Trey McClish of the Dallas Field Office of the Department of Commerce’s Office of Export Enforcement (OEE). “OEE and our law enforcement partners will continue to identify, investigate, and dismantle transnational criminal organizations who pose a threat to our national security.”
Mercer-Erwin faces up to life in federal prison.