Wayward pilot takes small plane to Cuba
BY JENNIFER BABSON, CHARLES FORELLE AND
A novice pilot who once staged his own disappearance from
Nevada and most recently worked at a Pizza Hut near
Marathon's airport in the Florida Keys stole a single-engine
plane Tuesday and crash-landed it near Havana, walking
away dazed, authorities said.
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office identified the wayward
pilot of the solo flight as Milo John Reese, 55. He gained
attention -- and notoriety -- in Reno, Nev., as an
anti-prostitution crusader. In recent
days, he delivered pepperoni pies
for the Pizza Hut in Marathon.
``Ed, this doesn't feel right,'' Reese
radioed his flight instructor at
Florida Keys Marathon Airport just
before he swept toward the horizon.
It apparently was a reference to
what Reese claimed would be his
first solo landing. And it might have
been. Police said Reese had a
history of mental illness and often
pretended to be a pilot.
Witnesses in Cuba said the plane
attempted to land on a road near
the town of Cojímar, east of
Havana, but hit a rocky patch of
coast, broke its landing gear and
overturned just a few yards from the
The pilot walked away in an
apparent daze. Police took him into
custody, witnesses said.
Fabian Molina Herrera, a 19-year-old student, said the pilot
appeared to have scratches on his arms.
``He said his name was Juan Miguel, that he was from
Florida and he asked for some water,'' Molina said.
Juan Miguel is the name of the father of Elián González,
shipwrecked boy whose eventual return from South Florida
to Cuba made headlines last year.
The Cuban government did not immediately confirm Reese's
arrival or detention. ``We're in contact with Cuban
authorities,'' said Chris Lamora, a spokesman for the U.S.
State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. He declined
to comment further.
Reese's motive was not known, but his reputation was.
``He was not what I considered stable,'' said Rob Grant, who
owns Grant Air Service in Marathon and had rented planes
to Reese -- until earlier this week, when Grant cut him off.
``He was flaky. As we say in the business, he was flying
with a broken wing.''
Becky Herrin, a spokeswoman for the Monroe County
Sheriff's Office, said Reese has a history of manic
His wife, Susan Reese of Reno, told police her husband had
run away from home four times, Herrin said.
When he left most recently, on June 14, he wasn't taking his
medication, she said.
He was staying in room 116 at the 15-room Seaward Resort
Motel in Marathon -- $60 per night, according to the owner.
Deputies who searched Reese's hotel room found a book
titled How to Fly Cessnas, Herrin said.
``One of the things he does in his episodes is pretend he's a
pilot,'' she said.
David Patten, who worked with Reese at Pizza Hut, said he
had lunch Tuesday with the novice pilot. Reese had an order
of french fries and two Budweisers. He asked Patten to
accompany him on a flight to Key West.
``He didn't say Cuba, no mention of Cuba,'' Patten said. ``I
don't believe he even knew how far it was to Cuba or
The answer: 136 miles.
The white, four-seat Cessna 172 was rented from Paradise
Aviation, according to company officials. The firm is owned
by Ed Steigerwald, who also served as Reese's flight
Steigerwald spent much of Tuesday night being questioned
by the FBI, according to his wife, Ute. Meanwhile, deputies
towed Reese's turquoise Suzuki out of the airport parking
Ute Steigerwald said her husband described Reese as
``perfectly normal'' -- a description at odds with most others
-- and confirmed that he worked at the Pizza Hut, which sits
along U.S. 1 on the southern flank of the airport.
Grant said Reese was well known around the airport and not
particularly well regarded. He had flown about 15 hours with
Grant Air, until two or three days ago, when Grant stopped
renting planes to him.
``This guy, as far as I was concerned, was a huge liability,''
In the past, Reese has made headlines in Reno, staging his
own disappearance in 1999 to attract attention to his
Reese apparently tried to make it look as if a brothel owner
was behind his disappearance.
His scheme was discovered when a bank surveillance
camera spotted him making a withdrawal in Sacramento,
Back in Marathon, Ute Steigerwald said Reese ``has flown
for about two weeks, several times a week. He seemed fine,
otherwise my husband would not have let him go on his first
Reese perfectly executed three practice landings -- with his
instructor by his side -- before being allowed to make his
first solo, she said.
She said everything seemed fine until the end of the flight.
``He told my husband he could not land the plane,'' she said.
``He tried to talk him down. He told him: `You're fine. You're
100 feet from the runway.' ''
Reese headed for the runway, on a northeastward approach
on a heading of 70 degrees and at an altitude of 100 feet,
witnesses said. But the pilot suddenly pulled up, increased
his speed and turned right, eventually heading southwest
over the Keys -- toward Cuba.
``He would not answer the radio,'' Ute Steigerwald said. ``He
just stopped responding.''
Bryan Hanson, the manager of Paradise Aviation, said
Reese had logged close to 20 flight hours with his company.
On Tuesday, Reese ``had been up 20 to 30 minutes with the
instructor, and then he turned him loose, and bye-bye, he
was gone,'' Hanson said.
``He said softly on the radio something like `Oh, gosh, I'm
Patten, the co-worker at Pizza Hut, said Reese seemed
bright and literate.
``I was probably his best friend in town, probably his only
friend,'' Patten said. Still, he could not explain Reese's
Patten: ``Is it possible he did it to be famous?''
A group of U.S. Navy P-3 Orions, on a mission from the
Naval Air Station at Boca Chica in Key West, eventually
made visual contact with the Cessna, according to Navy
spokeswoman Susan Barkley.
``They did see it and saw that it went into Cuban airspace,''
Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation
Administration, said the pilot was not required to register a
flight plan with air traffic controllers and would not have been
``Small planes follow visual flight rules, which means they
just steer clear of other planes that they see,'' Brown said.
U.S. military officers tracked the plane but did nothing to
precipitate any response from the pilot or from Cuba's
military, a spokesman said.
``You have to remember, it was going away from the United
States, not toward, so it was just tracked,'' said Maj.
Douglas Martin, a spokesman at the North American
Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.
``Your concern is not as great as something coming toward
the United States.
``But anything that we see going toward the Cuba area is of
course of interest to us.''
He said no response was seen from the Cubans. ``We noted
that they did not scramble MiGs,'' he said.
Experts said Cuba might return the plane, but Reese will
likely remain in the hands of Cuban authorities. The reason:
no extradition treaty with the United States.
``What has happened in the past in cases of airliners is that
Cuba has kept the hijackers and supposedly has tried
them,'' said Wayne Smith, a retired U.S. diplomat who
served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
``Some, we know, have been put out to cut sugar cane.''
Herald staff writers John Barry, Elaine de Valle, Gail Epstein
Nieves, Renato Perez, Nancy San Martin and Luisa Yanez
contributed to this report, as did Herald research editor
Elisabeth Donovan and Herald wire services.