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Barrel-chested, gregarious and flush with cash, “Jerry Whittier” was 41 years old when he rolled into Gatlinburg in early 1980. Appearing to be a successful entrepreneur, he bought an upscale chalet home for $125,000. He gave generously to local charities.

And he planned to buy what was then the Sevier County Airport, recalls retired 4th District Attorney General Al Schmutzer. That deal came apart in 1981, when he was linked to a huge cocaine shipment seized from an airplane there.

Whittier’s real name was Gerald Lyle Hemp. He was a pilot and a master of multiple identities for whom disappearing was as easy as walking out a door. And for more than a quarter of a century, he has eluded some of the U.S. government’s best man-hunters.

“He had 13 aliases, that we know of,” said Brian Nerney, chief deputy of the U.S. Marshals Service office in Tallahassee, Fla. “And he was in business long before 9/11, when it was a lot easier to get a new identity.”

Hemp claimed he didn’t know drugs had been placed in the seized airplane that was linked to him. In his 1983 trial, he said he was a CIA-backed gunrunner, using aviation connections to supply arms for anti-communist causes in Central and South America.

“He had no proof of that,” Schmutzer said. “Whether he had those kind of connections or not, the evidence is that he was a cocaine dealer.”

The trial was nearly two years before The Associated Press published stories alleging links between cocaine smuggling and CIA activity in Nicaragua. The CIA disputed the allegations, and those stories and subsequent ones raising similar allegations remain controversial among journalists and historians.

Hemp escaped from a Florida prison in 1984 with suspicious ease. By 1989, he was on the U.S. Marshals list of top 15 fugitives. He has been featured on the “America’s Most Wanted” TV show.

If Hemp is still alive, he turned 71 in December. He would still be considered armed and dangerous, given the fact his name has surfaced in at least three murder cases, Nerney said.

“We have some information suggesting that he had acted as an enforcer for the drug cartels,” Nerney said. However, Hemp has never been charged with any homicide.

“I don’t even know if Gerald Hemp was his real name,” said Gordon Ball, one of his lawyers. “He always maintained that he had CIA connections. He was always an in-the-shadows-and-dark-sunglasses kind of guy. I know that in his own mind at least, he considered himself a soldier of fortune.”

An Illinois high school dropout, Hemp was convicted of robbery in 1965. Later he lived in Florida and dabbled in several businesses. Around 1978, he disappeared for the first time, apparently to avoid creditors, some of whom claim he had conned them out of investment money.

In Gatlinburg, he was soon joined by an associate, Charles Leslie Kageler Sr., who was also using an alias.

In March 1981, federal authorities asked Tennessee to determine if an airplane with a specific ID number had landed at Sevier County Airport. TBI Agents David Davenport and Bob Denney were sent there alone, with no other information.

Hemp, Kageler, Kageler’s son, Bubba, and C.D. Newell were there. It was later learned that Bubba Kageler and Newell had flown the plane into Sevier County. Davenport, who is today the sheriff of Jefferson County, said that as he and Denney checked around the airport, a police cruiser on routine patrol drove by. Hemp and the other men, apparently thinking other officers were arriving behind the TBI agents, fled on foot.

The plane contained 614 pounds of nearly pure cocaine, worth an estimated $200 million, at that time the largest amount of cocaine ever seized from an aircraft.

In July 1982, Kageler’s body was found floating off the coast of South Florida, with head injuries. The death was ruled a drowning “with evidence of foul play.” Florida authorities said Hemp was a “person of interest” in the death.

In September 1982, Hemp was arrested in Pompano Beach, using the name “George W. Baker,” an identity for which he had a birth certificate, Social Security card, driver’s license and passport. In his $250,000 house in Boca Raton, Fla., police found weapons, sophisticated night vision devices and documents revealing inside information about Drug Enforcement Administration operations in Florida.

Davenport and Denney brought Hemp back from Florida. On the flight back, Denney recalls, “he told us, ‘If we’d known it was just the two of you alone, we would’ve shot you and put you in the plane and thrown you out over a lake somewhere.’ “

“He said that in a kind of tongue in cheek, not in a malicious way at all,” Davenport recalls. “But I believed him. We had found guns all over that airport,” including a submachine gun.

Schmutzer prosecuted Hemp, who was convicted and sentenced to serve four 10-year terms consecutively.

Bubba Kageler and Newell were convicted and testified at Hemp’s trial. After his trial, Hemp was sent to the state prison in Nashville in late January 1983. What happened thereafter has never been fully explained, although a simple clerical error that led prison officials to believe Hemp’s sentences were to be served concurrently has been blamed.

He was approved for a program in which prison systems in different states exchange prisoners to allow them to serve time near family members. In February 1984, he was transferred to a prison in Lantana, Fla., and classified as a “medium” security prisoner serving only 10 years.

Ultimately, he was assigned to a work release program.

On July 10, 1984, he was given a pass to leave prison grounds to see a dentist. He got his teeth cleaned. He just never returned to prison.

“(The dentist) later said that Hemp told him he wouldn’t need a ride back to prison, and paid him with a big wad of cash,” Schmutzer said. “As far as I know, he was the last person to actually see Gerald Hemp alive.

“Gerald Hemp has eluded justice. That never set well in my craw, at all.”

Ball’s co-counsel, internationally known drug case attorney Frank Rubino of Miami, said that Hemp called his office several times after he had escaped.

“We always said, ‘Jerry, you’ve made this worse on yourself, you’ve gotta let us arrange to give yourself up,’ but he never did,” said Rubino, who had also represented Hemp in the Sevier County trial. “I think this went on for about a couple of months. Then we just stopped hearing from him again. That’s why I think he’s dead. He was one of the most outgoing guys I ever knew, just loved to talk to people. He couldn’t stay off the phone, and then suddenly, you just stop hearing from him?”

Theories abound as to what happened.

“We have looked all over the world for him,” Nerney said. Though the case is still open and periodically reviewed, Nerney said, there is currently no active investigation, and Hemp is no longer on the top 15 fugitive list. The last active entry in Hemp’s file is from 1999, a notice to the DEA office in Belize that Hemp had reportedly been seen there.

Nerney said one of the marshals who spent a lot of time on the case feels that Hemp was likely murdered shortly after the escape, by someone else in the drug business.

“High stakes and high profits come with high risks,” Nerney said.

Davenport, Schmutzer and Denney suspect that Hemp is still alive.

“I have always been suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the escape,” Davenport said. “There’s a lot of strange things happened there. And there have been reports of him being in Las Vegas, the Caribbean, Mexico.”

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but my gut feeling is he got help from someone or some agency with the power and leverage to get things done for him, ” Schmutzer said. “I have a hunch that he is still alive out there, somewhere. And laughing at the state of Tennessee.”

Jim Balloch may be reached at 865-342-6315.

Barrel-chested, gregarious and flush with cash, "Jerry Whittier" was 41 years old when he rolled into Gatlinburg in early 1980. Appearing to be a successful entrepreneur, he bought an upscale chalet home for $125,000. He gave generously to local charities.

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Gerald Hemp is a totally ’80s bad guy — the kind you’d expect to encounter on Miami Vice. But it’s not just because Hemp was known to ferry huge shipments of cocaine by private plane. What made Hemp special was his facility for shifting identities and slipping out of prisons.

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Raised in the Midwest, there was something about Florida that appealed to Hemp. According to the Knoxville News story from this weekend, Hemp’s first disappearing act occurred in our state around 1978, when he’s believed to have been caught defrauding an investor — a hallowed Florida tradition.

Hemp resurfaced in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and — stop me if this sounds familiar — bought expensive real estate and started showering local charities with generous donations.

In 1981, says the article, federal agents were tipped off about a plane landing at the local runway. Hemp was on it, but he and his associates fled when the agents seized the plane. They found more than 600 pounds of nearly pure cocaine, with a value of about $2 million, the largest shipment ever found on a plane at that time.

The body of one of his fellow fugitives, Charles Kageler, was found off the South Florida coast in July 1982. He had drowned, but investigators found evidence of foul play. Hemp was named a “person of interest.” Two months later:

In September 1982, Hemp was arrested in Pompano Beach, using the name “George W. Baker,” an identity for which he had a birth certificate, Social Security card, driver’s license and passport. In his $250,000 house in Boca Raton, Fla., police found weapons, sophisticated night vision devices and documents revealing inside information about Drug Enforcement Administration operations in Florida.

Tennessee investigators [David] Davenport and [Bob] Denney brought Hemp back from Florida. On the flight back, Denney recalls, “he told us, ‘If we’d known it was just the two of you alone, we would’ve shot you and put you in the plane and thrown you out over a lake somewhere.’ “

Swell guy, eh? Hemp was tried and convicted, then sentenced to four prison terms of ten years each that he was to serve consecutively. But based on what was believed to be a clerical error — which Hemp may have had a hand in, for all we know — he managed to qualify himself for a work release program that allowed prisoners to be transferred to a state that’s close to their families. Guess what state Hemp requested?

In February 1984, he was transferred to a prison in Lantana, Fla., and classified as a “medium” security prisoner serving only 10 years.

Ultimately, he was assigned to a work release program.

On July 10, 1984, he was given a pass to leave prison grounds to see a dentist. He got his teeth cleaned. He just never returned to prison.

“[The dentist] later said that Hemp told him he wouldn’t need a ride back to prison and paid him with a big wad of cash,” Schmutzer said. “As far as I know, he was the last person to actually see Gerald Hemp alive.”

Hemp would be 71 years old right now, meaning that if he continues to live here, in his favorite stomping grounds, he’d be virtually undetectable among the droves of other South Florida retirees. Let’s just close this case: Hemp’s long gone.

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Gerald Hemp is a totally '80s bad guy — the kind you'd expect to encounter on Miami Vice. But it's not just because Hemp was known to ferry huge shipments of cocaine by private plane. What made Hemp special was his facility for shifting identities and slipping out of prisons.Raised…