RANTOUL — The Indiana man who was contracted to dismantle a number of vintage Air Force planes on the former Chanute Air Force Base might be out more than $100,000 after allegedly selling two ejector seats from a fighter plane.
Ken Morrison, 68, of Whiting, Ind., said he has been charged with money laundering for selling the seats to a man who approached him on the former base about buying them.
It’s just the latest misstep for the owner of T&K Metals who earlier this year was ordered to stop dismantling the planes because the work caused several airplane fires, one of which destroyed a plane.
Morrison said he was preparing to load some of the dismantled airplane parts into a truck when he was approached about selling the ejector seats from an F-105 fighter jet.
"I didn’t see much harm in it," Morrison said. "He offered me 120 bucks for two seats. I said, ‘Go ahead.’"
Morrison said the man went to the bank and brought back the money, and Morrison loaded the seats into the man’s truck.
The action prompted officials with Liquidity Services (the company that had awarded him the contract) and the Department of Defense to order him to cease operations.
The salvage operator said he knew there is a provision in his contract that items from the planes can’t be "disposed of by refurbishing or re-selling it for the same use," but he said he didn’t think that applied in this case.
"I know this guy doesn’t have an F-105," Morrison said, adding he figured the buyer just wanted to display the seats in his home. "I didn’t think it would be breaking the law. I think it’s kind of sad some of that stuff" is melted down.
Calls and emails to Rantoul Police Department and Liquidity Services by the Press asking for additional information were not returned.
Morrison said the buyer was probably "65 or 70" and had the look of a military veteran about him — the kind of person who is a flight buff who goes to airplane conventions.
"I knew the guy wasn’t going to sell it to South Korea for their 105s," he said.
Morrison said he didn’t know the buyer, but authorities obtained his license plate number and went to his house and retrieved the seats, which Morrison said weighed 40-50 pounds.
Morrison was banned from the site, and he said a Caterpillar Skid Steer that he owns was seized.
"The police wrote up an order I can’t come into the city any more for one year," Morrison said. "They filed a charge of money laundering."
Morrison said he doesn’t even know what that charge means.
The salvage operator, who said this is the first job he has had salvaging planes, estimates he stands to lose a lot of money on the contract, especially if he doesn’t get the Caterpillar back.
He said he bid $39,000 for the salvage contract.
"I might get half of that back," he said. "I paid for those planes back in September, and it took them 6 1/2 months to decide they might want to get rid of them."
Morrison said he spent another $35,000 in labor, equipment and oxygen to dismantle the planes.
"But the big thing is because of (the charge) they seized a $50,000 Cat Skid Steer. That’s what really hurts," he said. "I’ve lost a lot of money in a few days."
He estimated he had another 45-50 days worth of work left to salvage the rest of the items, including a C-133 plane and a missile that stands near U.S. 45.
Morrison said he is scheduled to appear Sept. 18 at a preliminary court hearing.
The salvage operator said all told he has spent about 3 1/2 months dismantling the Air Force planes. But things went awry almost from the start.
A C-47 he was working on caught fire and was destroyed in April. Two other planes also caught fire, prompting the village of Rantoul to order Morrison to cease work.
He said he received a village permit to restart the work when he said he would keep an employee on hand at all times with water to douse any fire that should break out.
Morrison seems to bear no grudges, saying he likes Rantoul because "everybody’s kind of laid back" and friendly. He even said he thinks maybe the police department was "kind of the victims here," saying he believes Liquidity Services and the Department of Defense were the main ones pushing for the charge and him being banned from the job.
For Morrison, the whole thing has been a learning experience.
"It was interesting," he said. "I don’t think it was $110,000 worth of interesting though."