Cocaine, submarine, cash: CEO killed in plane crash was bankrolling drug empire, feds say
By MARISA IATI | The Washington Post | Published: April 3, 2021
On the surface, Marty Tibbitts led a charmed life.
The CEO of a Michigan-based telecommunications company, he lived in a historic waterfront mansion with his high school sweetheart and co-founded the now-shuttered World Heritage Air Museum. Family and friends remembered his "big smile and fun demeanor" after he was killed in a plane crash in July 2018.
But behind the scenes, prosecutors allege, Tibbitts was quietly designing an underwater drone meant to shuttle large amounts of cocaine to Europe as part of a massive drug trafficking organization that they say he was financing.
A freshly unsealed federal indictment, first reported by the Detroit News, details a six-year investigation into the trafficking ring whose reach ensnared more than a dozen countries, including the United States, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico. The complaint brings criminal charges against an alleged drug baron arrested in North Carolina and portrays Tibbitts, 50, as a high-level co-conspirator.
Court records do not name Tibbitts but identify the co-conspirator as "Marty," mention his Grosse Pointe Park home and reference his death in a July 2018 plane crash. The News reported that it had verified his identity.
Tibbitts's wife, Belinda Tibbitts, could not be reached Friday at phone numbers publicly listed for her. Her attorneys in an insurance-related lawsuit involving her late husband's estate did not respond to an email.
The probe leading to Tibbitts, who ran Clementine Live Answering Service, began in January 2015 when Drug Enforcement Administration agents set their sights on the trafficking ring allegedly led by Ylli Didani. Customs and Border Patrol intercepted Didani six months later when he arrived at Chicago O'Hare International Airport from Albania, according to the complaint unsealed Thursday.
Didani told CBP that he was visiting family and friends in the United States and planned to return to Albania in about a month to keep running his coal business. CBP agents searched his iPhone and found photos of him with stacks of rubber banded U.S. currency, what appeared to be an assault rifle and a semiautomatic handgun, the complaint says.
The next time Didani flew to Chicago - this time from Rome - in August 2016, he was allegedly found to be carrying seven vials of human growth hormone, which is mostly illegal in the United States. His phone allegedly showed more photos of bundled bills, two of whose geotag data showed that they were taken at an apartment in Macomb County, Mich., that was being rented by a co-conspirator.
In messages exchanged on the Viber app, prosecutors say Didani and the co-conspirator, who used the username "Dan Dan," talked about selling bulk cocaine, illegally moving money, creating fraudulent passports and receiving packages via FedEx.
"Get with marty asap," Didani allegedly messaged Dan Dan in July 2016, apparently referencing Tibbitts. Didani followed up with screenshots of a conversation about finding someone to help discreetly move 100 million euros from a Deutsche Bank location in Frankfurt, Germany, to Dubai, the complaint says.
Tibbitts, meanwhile, was allegedly funding much of the trafficking operation. In 2016 and 2017, prosecutors say Dan Dan cashed $864,000 from Tibbitts in cashier's and personal checks - many at pawnshops and gold exchange businesses.
After he cashed the last checks, Dan Dan flew on Tibbitts's private plane to the District of Columbia, the complaint says. There, Tibbitts gave Didani the money they had gotten from the cashed checks and also wired more than $1.8 million to accounts in Albania, prosecutors allege.
In August 2017, Tibbitts allegedly went to Tirana, Albania, for a few days. When he returned, prosecutors say he received two packages from Didani: one identified as containing computer and personal items and another that said it had cards and papers. The complaint says the packages were reminiscent of drug traffickers' tendency to mail electronics, instead of traveling with them, so that the devices cannot be searched at international borders.
While financing the trafficking ring's purchase of cocaine in South America, prosecutors say Tibbitts also worked with Didani on creating the underwater drone. Known as the "torpedo," the remotely controlled submarine would use magnets to attach to the bottom of cargo ships.
The operator could later detach the drone, which would send a GPS signal with its location. Then, prosecutors allege, the trafficking ring would send a fishing boat to meet the submarine about 100 miles off the coast of Europe and collect the cocaine.
Using the alias "Dale Johnson," Tibbitts paid more than $12,000 in money orders, cryptocurrency deposits and a wire transfer from an Albanian bank account to an unidentified company that he had hired to design the drone and create a prototype, the complaint says. Investigators say they also found computerized drawings and hand sketches of the model.
Then Tibbitts was killed while flying a plane in Sheboygan, Wis., and prosecutors say communication between "Dale Johnson" and the company suddenly stopped. The drone was never completed.
Tibbitts was not an unknowing participant in the trafficking operation, prosecutors claim. Documents allegedly show that Tibbitts "had in-depth knowledge of the workings of the organization and the purpose of the transferred funds" - namely, to transport bulk quantities of cocaine from South America to Europe.
Didani, who was arrested this week, has been charged with money laundering, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. His public defender did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
While Tibbitts's death ruined the plan for a submarine, Didani's alleged drug ring did not immediately shut down. Prosecutors say Didani was later linked to the organization of cocaine shipments to the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain.
And Didani's international travel allegedly grew exponentially.
He needed to find a new financier.
The Washington Post's Derek Hawkins and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.