Secrets and Crimes

A twin-engine Aerocommander dipped from the sky above Lantana's municipal airport. Caught in a gust the plane hovered above the tarmac before screeching to earth. Tearing past Pipers and Cessnas, ultralights and helicopters, the six-seater slowed to a halt at the mouth of an overstuffed hangar, propellers whirring. Jean-François Buslik stepped from the cockpit, headphones in hand, his ash gray Bill Clinton pompadour hair spray-fresh. There was a lilt in his stride, a crease in his khaki shorts, a smile beneath his upturned nose. He looked smug and self-satisfied -- like a man who'd gotten away with murder.

A reporter approached him. "You're a nuisance," he said, brushing off an inquiry in a halting French accent. "Get away from me. I don't intend to talk to you." He slammed the glass door leading into Kemper Aviation, where until last year he was the chief flight instructor, and disappeared into a conference room. The reporter, he hoped, would get the message and scram.

This encounter took place in late March, when Buslik, who for the longest time seemed a man beyond the law, was oblivious to legal machinations taking shape. In less than a month, United States Marshals, reacting in part to a New Times investigation begun in February, would swarm his home in North Palm Beach, placing him under arrest for murder and shattering the veneer of respectability he'd spent much of the last decade building in South Florida.

Before his arrest last Thursday, Buslik, whom many at the tiny jetless airport at Lantana describe as the best pilot to scream up and down the tarmac, was a man without a past. An intensely private and enigmatic figure, he had been lurking around the airport since the late '80s, teaching hundreds how to fly and shuttling cargo and wealthy weekenders to and from the Bahamas. As a flight instructor, he was a lure for Europeans looking for a quick and inexpensive route to flight readiness and a valuable resource for young pilots, many of whom described him as a "walking bible on aviation." He was also, according to many at the airport, "cold," "cocky," "unfriendly," and a "real jerk."

Although he earned not much more than pilots 15 to 20 years his junior, the 46-year-old Buslik never really seemed strapped for cash. With his expertise and many hours in the sky, he could easily have qualified for far more lucrative positions flying for the big airlines. He never tried for them, though.

"I just figured his wife had money or he had family funds," says Kathy Kemper, owner of Kemper Aviation, who worked with Buslik for many years but says she knows next to nothing about the man. Neither Kemper nor any of a half-dozen pilots interviewed at the airport ever went for a drink or a meal with Buslik. None of them ever played cards or barbecued steaks at the quarter-million-dollar waterfront home in North Palm Beach that he shared with a former flight student, now his wife, Diane Somerville, and her young daughter. None ever sailed on the 22- or 54-foot sailboats moored behind the house or went for a spin in the $80,000 Cessna 210 with which he was always tinkering at the airport. "He kept to himself, and I have never been one to be nosy," says Kemper. "He didn't let anybody get close to him," adds Doug Beggs, another pilot. "He was pretty much all business."

There is a very good reason why Buslik, who is licensed in Florida to carry a concealed weapon and often carried one at the airport, was always so reticent to share the details of his life. Tales of murder and grand larceny can be real conversation killers, even if they occurred in a distant place many years ago.

The key to the mystery Jean-François Buslik kept hidden from all who knew him in South Florida lies 5000 miles away in Belgium, in the heart of Europe, where four years ago he was found guilty of a murder committed 13 years earlier and sentenced to death. Buslik was not in court to mount a defense then. Instead he was in South Florida, land of sunshine and second chances, striving for anonymity, trying to disappear. Until last January, when Raf Sauviller, a magazine journalist, found Buslik's name and address on the Internet and published it in Belgium, he seemed to be succeeding in his quest to vanish in South Florida. Before his arrest the Belgian judiciary, which, contrary to press reports, had known of his whereabouts for years, hadn't bothered him in more than a decade, and until recently the Belgian press seemed largely to have forgotten about him.

Buslik was never really hiding, and Belgian authorities never really looked for him. He got married, opened businesses, got a driver's license and a concealed weapons permit, all under his real name. It wasn't until 1997 that the man known for 45 years as Jean-Francois Buslik ceased to exist. Legally adopting his wife's last name, he became Jean-Francois Somerville, although everyone knew him as Gene Buslik. For more than a decade, the fugitive whose name has appeared in more than a dozen books published in Belgium was hiding in plain sight. He should have been extradited long ago but instead found refuge not in some Third World banana republic but right here in the United States of America.

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Jay Cheshes