South Florida's Notorious Southern Air Connected to Zimbabwe Plane Mystery

South Florida's Notorious Southern Air Connected to Zimbabwe Plane Mystery
Robert Taylor via Flickr Creative Commons

Correction, Feb 23: An earlier version of this story misstated the plane's registration number and the location of the base of Western Global Airlines. The mistakes have been corrected below. 

Original story, February 22:
On February 14, an unmarked cargo plane touched down from Munich at the international airport in Harare, Zimbabwe, for refueling on its way to South Africa. Ground workers noticed something strange: rust-colored streaks branching out from a compartment on the all-white fuselage. When the door to it was popped open, a decomposing human body slumped out, horror-movie-like, and nearly tumbled onto the tarmac. Inside the cargo bay, officials found something just as startling: a giant consignment of South African banknotes – some 67 tons’ worth, according to Agence France-Presse.

Of course, there was a Florida connection. The plane is operated by Western Global Airlines, a previously obscure cargo carrier based in Estero. Suddenly, the company was at the center of an international incident, and conspiracy theorists were speculating about wild CIA plots.  

New Times attempted to untangle the threads that connected Florida to the incident. 

Western Global is run by a man named James K. Neff, a longtime executive in the world of airfreight.

Back in 1986, a cargo jet operated by a company called Southern Air Transport crashed in Nicaragua and triggered the chain of events that exposed the Iran-contra scandal. The company was found to be one of the most notorious CIA front companies ever. In 1999, it had just gone bankrupt, and Neff reorganized it under a new name, Southern Air.

Neff’s Southern Air won contracts to operate during the Iraq War. But did he have CIA connections? As for his Western Global, which now operates a fleet of 12 cargo planes, a spokesman, Jon Austin, said he could not confirm or deny whether the company had ever worked with the CIA, citing a policy of not discussing customers.

New Times traced the ownership of the plane, registered as number N545NJ   N545JN , to a shell company managed by Neff called M48543 LLC  . (Shell companies are commonly used in aviation.) Documents list the registered agent for the company as the Palm Beach estate-planning firm of attorney Robert Simses.

Simses also functions as a director for a charity called the Working Partners Foundation. IRS forms show that in 2015, he spent four hours per week working on the charity and that his firm was paid $20,000 to manage it. An article in The Intercept last year claims that before it was transferred to Simses, the charity funneled Pentagon money into North Korea and was used as a cover for intelligence activities.

In a phone interview, Simses said he has helped manage Neff’s estate. He stressed that he is listed as the registered agent for hundreds of companies and that the role of such an agent is to file incorporation papers and not to manage the company’s operations. He denied having any involvement with the plane that landed in Zimbabwe. Simses also denied ever having worked with the Pentagon, insisting the charity was legitimate and gave to a variety of causes.

Referring to the reporter behind the story in The Intercept, he said, “I think that guy was smoking dope,” adding that the article was “a pipedream.”

“I’ve never met anyone at the Pentagon,” he said. “I don’t know anything about moving money to North Korea.”

Air of intrigue aside, the whole Zimbabwe plane episode ended mundanely when the Zimbabwean government wrapped up an investigation Saturday.  

The South African Reserve Bank said it had chartered the jet to deliver newly printed notes from a Munich printer for circulation — hence explaining the money onboard.  Zimbabwean investigators concluded that the dead man was a stowaway who'd climbed into the wheel well during another of the plane's stops in Africa. He expired in the lethally thin air of cruising altitude, where temperatures can fall far below zero. The cause of death was ruled as asphyxiation. After the plane was impounded for a week, the flight crew was released to fly on to South Africa with the cash and body.

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