The life of Marty Tibbitts seemed perfect. During the week, he was a CEO of a telecommunications company; on the weekends, he was a flight hobbyist. He lived in a historic mansion on Lake St. Clair with his high school sweetheart. What more could you want, right? Well, you might want the truth. And the truth is that the man was living a double life. But not the stereotypical kind of two-faced deceit where a husband has a woman on the side or even a second family.
No, Marty’s secret life was on an international level of fraud. Nobody knew just what Marty was doing behind closed doors. By day, he was a CEO, but by night, he was secretly designing an underwater drone to transport large quantities of narcotics to Europe. And only after his plane accidentally crashed did his colossal covert operation come to light.
Marty Tibbitts was a founding member of the World Air Heritage Museum, a loving husband to his high school sweetheart and wife Belinda Tibbitts, and the kind of guy whom his friends remember as always laughing. That’s why it came as an utter shock – twofold – when he died in a sudden plane crash in July 2018, which exposed a much deeper secret.
The Detroit News published a detailed report about a six-year-long investigation of a drug trafficking cartel that spanned over a dozen countries, including the United States, Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador. Federal criminal charges were filed against an alleged drug lord who was arrested in North Carolina. It was then that the fingers were pointed at Marty Tibbitts as a high-level conspirator.
The documents in that initial report didn’t mention Marty by his last name, but they did identify him as Marty and mention his mansion in the wealthy Grosse Pointe Park neighborhood. They also noted that he died when his plane crashed in July of 2018. Eventually, his full name was identified, and the cat was out of the bag.
Reportedly, Marty went by the name Dale Johnson, and the 50-year-old man from Michigan was plotting something very big. Neither his wife Belinda nor his lawyers responded to calls and emails from multiple journalists asking for their side of this complicated story.
Martin J. Tibbitts was an entrepreneur, but his true passion was flying vintage military aircraft. “I fell in love with Cold War jet aviation,” Marty told The Free Press back in 2015. The co-founder of the World Heritage Air Museum owned eight vintage planes, including the one he crashed. So, what happened?
According to The Detroit News, Marty’s neighbors were stunned when they learned of the double life their neighbor had been living. One person said, “I think anybody who would hear something like this would be shocked.”
“I never got any hint of the evil intent of anything, never,” friend Beverly Kindle-Walker remarked. This kind of news is not something these folks were used to hearing. Just look at the way they lived. After the two married, Marty and Belinda bought their Grosse Pointe Park dream home.
It didn’t take long for them to become the talk of the town. The couple met in high school and rekindled their young love again in their mid-20s. Then, after reconnecting years later, the two blended their three children into one family.
They bought the 12,000 square foot home from Alto Reed, the saxophonist for Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, which meant that the mansion had been home to many parties over the years. “Kid Rock played a concert here,” Marty boasted in a profile of the couple in Detroit Design Magazine several years before his death.
“He came in his helicopter with Pamela Anderson. Everyone has a story about this house.” The home was recently listed for $6.4 million.
So how does one put all this in jeopardy? Well, it always has to do with money… and power.
The investigation began in January of 2015, but at that time, there was nothing suspicious about the friendly manager of the firm Clementine Live Answering Service. What the agents of the DEA (the United States Drug Enforcement Administration) were doing, though, were tracking a drug cartel that was allegedly run by a man named Ylli Didani – a man who proved to be Marty’s partner in crime.
Albanian prosecutors dropped a money-laundering probe onto Didani. Six months later, Didani was brought in and questioned by immigration authorities when he arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
Didani explained that the reason for his trip to the U.S. was personal; he came to visit family and friends. He was planning on returning to Albania in a month to continue working at his coal company.
Of course, this was his rehearsed monologue that he prepared for if and when he was questioned. At first glance, Didani, who was a Michigan resident, was a successful businessman with investments in American companies as well as those in Albania and Kosovo (where he had a business relationship with a former security aide to ex-Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj).
But according to U.S. authorities, it was all just a façade. According to the DEA, the 43-year-old was also leading a double life, supposedly mining for minerals while he was actually smuggling drugs from South America to Europe.
It’s the main source of “dirty money” going through Albania’s miserable economy, according to authorities. It helps finance political corruption, sway political elections and win protection from prosecution. When reviewing the images from his iPhone, the DEA agents found photos of heaps of cash next to what appeared to be an assault rifle and a semi-automatic pistol.
Two photos time-stamped on July 9, 2016 were located in an apartment in Macomb Count, Michigan. At the time, that apartment was being rented out to a person identified in court documents as “CC-1” (or “co-conspirator 1”).
Investigators, staked out on location, saw Didani at the apartment several times during the summer of 2016. According to the DEA, he had a contact in his iPhone named “Dan Dan.” Agents say “CC-1” was “Dan Dan,” and the two exchanged Viber messages in July and August 2016. And those messages were incriminating.
In those messages, they discussed illegal money transfers, receipts of FedEx packages, the falsifying of passports and the sale of large quantities of cocaine. Didani had also sent a photo of a red duffle bag holding many rectangular packages wrapped in red and yellow – something DEA agent Brandon Leach said was consistent with kilogram bricks of cocaine.
That photo was accompanied by the message: “That’s ur house.” That message led Leach to believe that the profits from the sale would be enough to buy a house. On July 19, 2016, Didani wrote to CC-1/Dan, asking to meet with “Marty as soon as possible.”
He then sent a screenshot on his Blackberry showing a conversation about finding someone to help him move “100M euros.” The move was supposed to be made from Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, Germany, to a bank in Dubai, without having the bank report any of the transactions.
The DEA was eventually able to identify “Marty” as co-conspirator “CC-2.” Albanian court documents went further, identifying him as Marty Tibbitts of Macomb County. It was then that Marty was understood to be the CEO of a telecommunications company called Clementine Live Answering Service as well as the founder of the World Heritage Aviation Museum in Michigan.
It took years for those agents to piece together the criminal puzzle of Didani and Marty Tibbitts, who allegedly conspired to design and produce an underwater drone meant to store and transport large quantities of cocaine.
The drone was essentially designed as a torpedo. In fact, they even called it “The Torpedo,” and it was designed to stick to boat hulls via powerful magnets. It was also going to involve an underwater modem to communicate with a remote operator who would then be able to track the drone’s location using GPS.
After the drone separated from the ship, the cartel would send a fishing boat to search for it, up to 100 miles off the coast of Europe. It was all very elaborate. From May 2016 up until June 2018, investigators had both Didani and Marty on their radar.
By intercepting the pair’s messages, authorities learned that the partners in crime had already hired a company to build the prototype of the torpedo. However, at that point, it was never described as a “smuggling submarine,” but rather as an “underwater equipment for sanding boat hulls.”
Marty didn’t limit himself to just financing Didani’s operations, though. The man was deeply involved in the operation as he helped draw up plans for the torpedo. The company they hired received $12,000 in bank transfers from Albania as well as cryptocurrency deposits and direct shipments in order to make the device.
Apparently, the company’s managers never knew what the device was actually meant to be used for. The plan was very likely going to be put into action, that is if Marty’s plane hadn’t ended up crashing into a dairy farm.
Everything was ready. There were initial sketches made by hand, digital drawings, and even the prototype model of the torpedo. But then, boom. An accident happened. Everything – the entire 80 million euro operation – came to an abrupt end after “Dale Johnson” suddenly died in a plane crash.
On July 20, 2018, Marty was flying a British postwar de Havilland DH 112 Venom – one of his planes. He crashed into a family dairy farm and died instantly, alongside 50 milking cows. Marty’s plane took off from Sheboygan County Memorial Airport in Wisconsin at 4 p.m. on a Friday. It didn’t take long until something went wrong.
The plane crashed just seconds after takeoff, suddenly crashing into the dairy farm, which sat close to the airport. After its initial impact into a cornfield, the jet staggered into a barn and calving building, which resulted in a massive fire. Fire and rescue personnel were immediately called in from around the region.
Not only did Marty die, but so did all the livestock. Two farm workers were injured as well. Nobody on the ground died, however. Of the 50 cows that perished, some died on impact, and others had to be put down because of their injuries.
The cause of the crash still remains unclear. The National Transportation Safety Board started investigating the crash, but no conclusion has been reported. Sources say the plane Marty was flying was registered as N747J, which belonged to the World Heritage Air Museum – the one Marty founded – which was located in Harper Woods, Michigan.
Marty was taking the plane up to fly in formation with two other military aircraft. He was first to take off – with the other two right behind him. The aircraft, as well as many other warbirds, were taking part in a formation workshop. The workshop was in preparation for EAA’s yearly Air Venture air show at Oshkosh, and warbirds like the Venom are one of the air show’s biggest draws.
The Venom is a British postwar single-engine jet that was flown by Switzerland until 1983 and imported into the U.S. in the ‘90s. It took its first flight in 1949 and was designed to be a faster and more agile replacement to the Vampire.
The Venom served as a single-seat fighter-bomber and two-seat night fighter. Marty once explained in 2015 that prices of used military jets fell as much as 90 percent in the last decade. It was partly because new regulations made it harder to get special pilot licenses.
What that meant for Marty was that his hobby became far more affordable. He had recently purchased a plane for $75,000, which was actually worth “about 10 times that.” Still, flying a vintage fighter plane was a lot far more demanding, physically and mentally, than a propeller-driven plane, he explained.
“When you’re going as fast as we do, you don’t have much time to correct a mistake.” Marty left behind his wife Belinda, their children Mason and Julia, his stepdaughter, Cameron, and his parents, Carole and Larry Tibbitts. After the crash, the company building the prototype stopped all communication with the man they knew as Dale Johnson.
Marty’s death shook everyone, his family, friends, colleagues, and the entire criminal gang he was involved with. No one saw that coming. “Marty was a joy,” Joe Walker, a long-time friend and business associate, said. “He was one of those visionaries in business, always had great vision, great ideas.”
Walker added that he had texted him a couple of days earlier to say that he’d just landed in Sheboygan.
Of the two farm workers injured from the crash, one of them was a 25-year-old woman released from the hospital about a month later, though her co-worker, a 29-year-old male colleague, remained at a medical facility in Neenah.
The injured man’s status went from “critical” to “acute care.” The farmworkers ended up filing a lawsuit against Tibbitts’ estate and others in Wayne County Circuit Court, claiming negligence by Tibbitts and the World Heritage Air Museum, among others who were apparently involved in the flight.
Multiple witnesses at the scene reported that Mary’s plane appeared to be sluggish and wasn’t climbing, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The report stated that the plane reached no higher than 200 feet off the ground before beginning its descent.
A video taken by a witness exhibited how the plane’s left wing “rocked” down and up moments after taking off. The plane struck the ground near the farm before it slid into the barn, continuing for about 175 feet before coming to a complete stop.
A cellphone video emerged on YouTube that was recorded by a driver who was passing by. The footage shows Marty’s plane dropping straight into the barn, sending red flames and black smoke into the afternoon sky over rural Wisconsin. The driver pulled over, and the passenger is heard telling him, “keep your distance.”
Now missing his senior partner, Didani began a frantic search for Marty’s replacement. He went from Albania to the United States, to Spain, Holland, Dubai, the Dominican Republic and finally to Ecuador in search of the right person with the kind of profile that Marty had.
Didani interviewed dozens of individuals in a short period of time as he urgently needed someone to handle the immense quantities of drugs that were being imported and exported by companies with commercial shipping containers. For a while, Didani appeared to be succeeding. Federal investigators reported that he was moving shipments to the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain.
But all good things come to an end, and just like Marty met his fate suddenly one day, so did Didani. He was finally arrested in April 2021 and charged for money laundering, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances aboard vessels within the jurisdiction of the United States.
Their plan to build the torpedo to carry out their criminal activities died with Marty. As part of the money-laundering investigation, the DEA discovered that in 2016 and 2017 alone, “CC-1” received cashier’s checks from Marty totaling $860,000. CC-1 then cashed in the large amount at a gold shop and a pawn store.
“Through training and experience, I am aware that drug traffickers often utilize these types of businesses, instead of official banks, to launder drug proceeds in an attempt to remain undetected by law enforcement,” Leach noted in his formal statement.
CC-1 cashed the first two checks, totaling $100,000, on June 9, 2016, which was the same day that the photos of cash bundles (found on Didani’s phone) were taken at CC-1’s apartment. Then, on December 21, 2017, after cashing Marty’s checks, CC-1 flew with CC-1 to Washington D.C. to meet Didani to hand him the cash. According to the DEA, in addition to the Washington cash handover, Marty was involved in a series of wire transfers that were worth $1.8 million.
The money had been wired from a bank in Tirana, Albania, to someone in Didani’s organization. Marty traveled to Albania, where he visited the Tirana bank on September 5, 2017, requesting to transfer $500,000 from his U.S. bank account. He said he wanted to invest in telecommunications, manufacturing, fishing, etc. in Albania.
The transfer to Didani went through the next day, in the form of a 12-month interest-free loan under a notarized agreement between the two partners. Days later, Didani withdrew $65,000, after signing a declaration that he would buy a fishing boat worth $500,000.
He was going to buy it from an Albanian named Ahmet Masha, who was convicted in 2015 for oil smuggling. Two weeks later, Tirana’s Prosecutor’s Office started looking into Didani’s bank accounts and security deposits. The money laundering bell rang, and he was now on their radar.
Masha denied being involved with Didani, saying he only met him briefly in 2017. “I only knew him for two hours at Il Gambero beach,” Masha stated, referring to a restaurant they apparently met at on Albania’s coast. According to prosecutors, the boat Didani said he would purchase for half a million dollars was, in fact, worth $8,000.
As far as we know, this torpedo drone was never finalized, but it just goes to show how advanced drug smuggling has become. As criminal groups, particularly in Latin America, are increasingly shifting their focus to the profitable European drug market, more and more advanced ways are being developed to smuggle colossal amounts of drugs across the Atlantic.
This case has been the latest example of just how far the criminal technological race can go. While “narco-submarines” have been a feature of drug trafficking in the Americas for quite a while already, this is taking it to the next level.
It’s known as the “torpedo” method, and it requires highly trained divers to not only attach the container to the vessel but to remove it once the boat arrives at its destination. The first narco-submarine that crossed the Atlantic was seized in Spain in November of 2019.
In Colombia, for example, these vessels have become such a profitable option for drug traffickers that dedicated networks are popping up. Remotely operated drones are by no means a new development, either. Colombian authorities told InSight Crime in 2016 that these drones have been detected in their waters, but none have been discovered in Europe… as of yet.
Just for fun, let’s take another look at the famous mansion the Tibbitts lived in. Built in 1926, the house was designed by architect Robert O. Derrick, who went on to design The Henry Ford Museum, among many other famous buildings.
Derrick was known for specializing in Colonial Revival. The Tibbitts’ home, which was only feet away from the shores of Lake St. Clair, was a typical Mediterranean Revival, which was popular in the coastal resorts of Florida and California ever since the style popped up in the Panama-California Exposition in 1915.