(Mobile, Ala) Despite a budget crunch and not having enough money to promote deputies, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office still managed to buy a $340,000 plane last year.
The six seat, single-engine 2000 Beechcraft Bonanza was purchased in the Spring, and since July has flown dozens of times throughout Alabama and across state lines into Mississippi.
The Sheriff’s Office never revealed, announced, or explained the big ticket purchase to the public, so Local 15 approached the Sheriff for answers.
“We don’t want everyone knowing we’re flying around surveilling [sic] them and stuff like that,” Sheriff Sam Cochran told Local 15.
Cochran said he’s personally flown in the plane “about three times” for transportation to law enforcement meetings in Montgomery and to “do some surveillance.”
Cochran said the plane was paid for with drug seizures. That money comes from the MCSO’s Law Enforcement Fund, which is dedicated to purchasing and maintaining vehicles and equipment for the agency.
Cochran said drug seizure money could not be allocated to the MCSO’s Operating Fund, which is funded by taxpayer dollars and pays for deputy salaries and promotions.
The Sheriff’s Office has budgeted $25,000 annually to pay for fuel, maintenance and hangar space rental at Brookley Field. Cochran said that money comes out of the Law Enforcement Fund as well.
Cochran said the plane has three volunteer pilots. One is a Coast Guard Lieutenant with thousands of flight hours under his belt, and another is a flight instructor with 30 years experience. The third pilot, and leader of the aviation unit, is a personal friend of Cochran who is a local businessman and recreational pilot.
When asked what the plane is used for, Cochran emphasized "surveillance", but said it's also used for prisoner pickup and transport, interviewing out-of-town witnesses, travelling to law enforcement meetings, search and rescue, and supporting other agencies.
According to tracking records of the aircraft, it’s flown to Mississippi a number of times, including stops in Biloxi, Meridian, Moss Point, and Bay St. Louis.
Out of a total of 31 flights, only four have stayed within Mobile County limits. In Alabama, the plane has flown to Auburn, Montgomery, Atmore, and Evergreen.
Cochran said flights are authorized by him or his administrative assistant. When we asked him for information on specific flights, including who was piloting the plane, who the passengers were, and what the purpose of the flight was, Cochran either said he didn’t “have that information in front of [him]” or it was confidential.
”I’m here before you and tellin’ you it’s for law enforcement purposes,” Cochran said. “There’s no joyriding goin’ on, no personal trips being taken in it, or will be taken in it.”