Wright Brothers Aircraft Title’s Debra Mercer-Erwin convicted
Debra Mercer-Erwin, the owner of Wright Brothers Aircraft Title and Aircraft Guaranty Corporation, was this week found guilty by a Texas jury.
She 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 US.
“After knowing Debbie for more than 20 years I am so shocked by the whole thing,” said one aircraft broker who was a customer of Wright Brothers Aircraft Title. “She is a sweet lady who had built a good business. It is so sad to see this happen.”
The prosecution said that between 2010 and 2020, Mercer-Erwin used Aircraft Guaranty Corporation to create trusts that hid the identity of foreign owners, failed to conduct due diligence on foreign owners, provided false aircraft locations, and falsified and forged documents.
The US government said that it started the investigation after several aircraft held in Aircraft Guaranty Corporation trusts, and registered by Wright Brothers Aircraft Title, were involved in smuggling cocaine. The prosecution said that when authorities asked Mercer-Erwin for more information she did not help them. It also accused her of transferring ownership of aircraft after they were seized.
“Mercer-Erwin found ways to exploit the registration process in order to profit from illegally obtained money being paid for her services,” said US 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 organisations require assistance to operate in the US and Mercer-Erwin facilitated the drug dealing by exploiting the plane registration process.”
The prosecution said that Mercer-Erwin would receive an escrow fee ranging from $25,000 to $150,000 for her participation in the scheme.
The Texan jury did not find her guilty of conspiracy to commit export violations. This is a relief for other companies that have admitted that they had not always filed the correct paperwork when exporting aircraft. The judge’s instructions to the jury showed how this is a complex issue.
Mercer-Erwin was also not found guilty of conspiracy to commit registration violations involving aircraft not providing air transportation.
“In one way, this is a vindication for the trust structure,” says David Hernandez, a shareholder at Vedder Price. “But, on the other hand, the US Attorney’s Office appears to be pressing forward with a belief that trusts are responsible for knowing how aircraft are operated.”
Other trust companies have been contacted by US government officials following the Aircraft Guaranty Corporation case.
“From a big picture perspective, it was important that the jury got the right answer on the registration and customs violation issues. And they did,” says one lawyer.
Mercer was taken into custody straight from court but has not been sentenced. Her daughter Kayleigh Moffett pleaded guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy to commit export violations. Carlos Rocha Villaurrutia, another co-defendant, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine knowing it would be unlawfully imported into the US; conspiracy to commit money laundering; and conspiracy to commit export violations.
It is still unclear what will happen to the more than 500 aircraft that are still in trusts managed by Aircraft Guaranty Corporation.
Four other people named in the indictment have not yet been arrested in the US.
“This guilty verdict stems from the collaborative efforts of our trusted international, federal, state and local law enforcement partners,” said Lester Hayes Jr., special agent in charge Dallas, Homeland Security Investigations. “After listening to testimony of high-ranking leaders of the Columbian and Nicaraguan governments, I am convinced this investigation has significantly decreased the flow of narcotics smuggled into the US.”