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The Mystery in Medellin: Why was ‘American Made’ there?

Published: September 10, 2017
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This is a story about a plane crash.

Start here: Everybody in-country was tired, or sweaty, or both. “Swelter” is a word that acquires new meaning in the in jungle.

It was the last day of filming in Colombia. Tom Cruise has been in-country for twenty sweaty days in a row. Everyone is anxious to get out of Dodge.

Two of them won’t made it.

Two men died in a plane crash making a bad movie

Everybody in-country was either tired, or sweaty, or both.

Several people later tell the Hollywood Reporter they were “rushing” to get back to Medellin that night, so they could fly out the next day.

Delays plagued production. ‘Time-out” was the director’s middle name. He made good popcorn movies, but he was notorious for indulgence, indecision, and personal excess.  He was a widely-disliked maverick with no people skills and odd traits reportedly including a slight lisp and adult braces.

On “The Bourne Identity” his big hit, he famously kept a tired crew working overtime so he could play Paintball in a well-lit forest. Although the movie was a smash, contrary to custom he wasn’t invited back to do the sequel. The head of the studio was quoted as saying she wanted to run him out of Hollywood.

Instead of filming in Louisiana and Arkansas where most of Barry Seal’s story took place, the Doug Liman-led production was spending almost a month in Medellin, Colombia.

“American Made’s” release date had been pushed back more than a year. That’s almost always a “Mediocre Alert.”  And its already  tanking overseas.

Two men died making a bad movie.

The Deathstar returns

Colombia’s jagged terrain, heavy rainfall and long, empty distances makes it one of the most dangerous places in the world for aviators. Medellin’s Olaya Herrera airport has been the site of numerous accidents. It closes at night and allows only domestic flights.

The plane itself is known to be unforgiving. Piloting an Aerostar in the fog over mountains in a country not your own is not for the uninitiated. “Pilots often call that plane the Death Star,” says Chris Palmer, a safety and risk assessment consultant who has worked on hundreds of Hollywood productions. “You had better be darn good in that craft if you’re going to fly it.”

While the three had flown the route at least a half-dozen times in recent days, they were now flying without the assistance of instruments. And it’s easy to be disoriented by the heavy clouds that regularly form near the crest of the Andes. Also, while filming in other parts of the country, like the Amazon, the crew of “Mena” heeded the recommendation that the production have a Colombian pilot on board.

After finishing a dubbing session in Santa Fe de Antioquia, production in Colombia wrapped. A twin-engine Piper Aerostar (N164HH), prepared to fly what was expected to be a brief 10-minute flight over a spine of the Andes back to Medellin. It followed two helicopters that left a few minutes earlier, one of which was ferrying Cruise.

There either was—or was not—a cloud bank settling on the summits circling the valley where Medellin sits. But that wasn’t really the point.

“Although there were no reports of bad weather in Santa Fe de Antioquia when the plane took off, an aviation official described the normally 10-minute flight as a ‘bungee jump’ or ‘roller coaster, “reported the Associated Press.

“It requires a skilled pilot to quickly take the plane from near sea level to a height of 9,800 feet to clear the Andes before sharply descending into the steep valley surrounding Medellin.”

Cruise had landed easily in Medellin when he arrived Aug. 20, because his flight originated in Barranquilla along the country’s Caribbean coast. Also he had been accompanied by a Colombian co-pilot.

The plane didn’t have one.

Cowboys in Colombia

The Aerostar, or Deathstar, if you prefer, climbed to 8,500 feet over the lush mountains. That wasn’t high enough, and it crashed a hundred yards below the ridgeline.

The crash took place outside a village called San Pedro de los Milagros. Dairy farmer Jaime Muñoz was the first to find the destroyed aircraft, which fell through trees before slamming to earth at 5:30 p.m. Friday evening. The plane’s tail sheared off, the fuselage and wings were warped and covered by fallen branches, and the cockpit was a mangled lump of glass and metal.

A second dairy farmer, José Ramiro Girando, joined him. When they stumbled down the ravine to the crash site, two men were dying. The farmers prayed over the two passengers as they died, to help them die well, he said. There was nothing else they could do.

Then there was what he described to reporters as “a cry of hope.” An overlooked third passenger was still alive, and even flashed them a thumbs-up. With almost non-existent Spanish, the man pleaded to be taken out of the plane.

“He didn’t understand anything (speak Spanish)” said Munoz.

The man couldn’t move. His legs were wedged underneath the controls. Despite their fear that they may have been doing more harm than good, the two farmers crawled into the wreckage.

“I ripped the wires and straightened his foot,” said Girando. “The others took his waist, we placed him on a blanket, and carried him from the plane.”

There was a badge hanging around his neck. “Are you Jimmy Lee?” He said, “I am. 

There were three men on the Piper Aerostar. All of them were pilots.

Alan Purwin was modestly famous in Hollywood for his movie work— flying helicopters through train tunnels, etc. Less visibly, but more lucratively, he was also the owner-manager of a Los Angeles-based company that sells aerial surveillance packages and black helicopters—real Blackhawk helicopters!—to urban police departments and military clients around the world.

Also along for the ride was pilot and Southern good ‘ol boy Jimmy Lee Garland, the only one of the three who lived.

Jimmy Garland was allegedly, the pilot on the downed plane. Garland was working as Tom Cruise’s double in the film. He also supplied a twin-engine Cessna 414 transport that was the second plane on the shoot.

TThe “third” man, and in some ways the most interesting, was six-foot Venezuelan Carlos Berl, who lived in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Carlos was a man of many names. “Carlos Berl.” “Carlos Eduardo Berl,” and even, in Venezuela, “Carlos Eduardo Berl Kohn.”

 

In the 1980’s Carlos Berl owned retail optical care stores in Washington D.C. The Washington Post did a lifestyle piece about him.

Carlos liked “eyewear that’s fun.”

At one time Berl also kept a residence in the dusty little town of Boerne, Texas, population 15,000, which is “aw shucks” proud—but clandestinely!—at boasting right next door a CIA base so super-secret that—after existing for decades—it was only acknowledged publicly in 2012. Called Camp Stanley, it is the CIA’s largest domestic facility.

What makes Carlos Berl so interesting is that no one has yet articulated a plausible reason for why he was there.

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