2 US pilots freed on bail in Dominican Republic
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic—Two U.S. cargo pilots whose supporters say they were inadvertently caught up in an apparent drug smuggling operation were freed from a Dominican jail Monday pending further investigation.
Kevin Kuranz, 31, of Sheboygan, Wis., and Christopher Schmidt, 28, of Maryville, Tenn., were visibly relieved by a three-judge panel's decision to grant them each $12,160 bail on the condition that they promptly return to the Caribbean country if authorities require their presence. No future hearings were immediately scheduled.
"I feel liberated," Schmidt said after the hearing, adding that he planned to return to Tennessee immediately to celebrate Christmas. His parents flew to the Dominican Republic to attend the hearing.
The pilots were detained Dec. 2 in Santo Domingo after agents from the Dominican anti-narcotics agency found about 321 pounds (146 kilograms) of cocaine and 4 pounds of heroin (2 kilograms) hidden in floor and ceiling panels of their cargo plane.
Three members of the Dominican military also arrested remain in custody and three others have been released on bail. An additional 12 military personnel were let go after authorities determined they were not involved.
No charges have been filed, but the Dominican legal system allows for preventive detention. Initially held in a cell with 14 other prisoners, the pilots were moved to a lower-security jail with more space.
Prosecutor Carmen Diaz Amezquita did not give details of where the case stands. A lawyer for the pilots, Miguel Valerio, said there was no evidence linking the men to the drugs found in their plane.
Kuranz and Schmidt were temporarily based in Puerto Rico, flying short cargo hops between the U.S. island and the Dominican Republic. After landing in the Dominican Republic, they left their plane for several hours while ground crews loaded the cargo. Authorities found the drugs while the pilots were away from the aircraft, according to their employer, Air Cargo Carriers.
On Monday, a frustrated James Germek, chief of the Milwaukee-based company, said: "We're not approving more contract services in the Dominican Republic, never."
Air Cargo Carriers appealed to the Dominican ambassador in Washington as well as authorities in the Dominican Republic to release the two men, at least on bail.
Rich Toner, a friend of Schmidt's, said numerous people were involved to secure the two pilots' release.
"The deciding factor here was not money or lawyers, it was family, friends, and a ridiculous amount of praying," Toner said in an e-mail.
Associated Press writer David McFadden contributed to this story from Kingston, Jamaica.