Former Chanute airplane salvager gets 2 years prison

Ken Morrison is shown inside an Air Force cargo plane that he later dismantled on the grounds of the former Chanute Air Force Base. Morrison has been convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for illegally dismantling an old railroad bridge in Indiana.

RANTOUL — After a conviction in a separate case, Champaign County prosecutors have dropped charges against an Indiana man who they said wrongfully sold two ejector seats from a plane he was tearing apart at the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul.

Court records show Assistant State’s Attorney Matt Banach informed Judge Heidi Ladd of the move in an email Monday. Banach said the contractor, Ken Morrison of Whiting, Ind., was recently sentenced in federal court in Indiana for stealing scrap metal from a bridge.

In Champaign County, the 69 year-old Morrison had faced charges of money laundering and theft. Prosecutors said in August 2018, Morrison sold the two seats from Chanute for $125. But prosecutors said the seats were still government property because they had not been scrapped.

Morrison earlier told the Rantoul Press he did not think he was violating his $39,000 salvage contract in selling the seats. Morrison said a man approached him on the base, asked about the seats, and “I didn’t see much harm in it.”

Police got the seats back and banned Morrison from the former base.

Morrison was sentenced Sept. 5 to two years in prison for stealing and chopping up a historical railroad bridge in Indiana for scrap metal.

“It was pretty brazen,” U.S. District Court Judge Philip P. Simon told Morrison, according to a Northwest Times article.

Morrison, 69, the owner of Whiting, Ind.-based T&K Metals, has prior convictions for environmental crimes. He said he didn’t think he did anything wrong by dismantling the bridge.

“I’ve been scrapping all my life. I’ve done 400 to 500 miles of railroad tracks and six bridge(s). I take them down all the time,” he said.

Morrison plans to appeal his conviction, demand a new trial and said he might serve as his own lawyer next time, according to the article.

A four-day trial was conducted. A jury found him guilty of interstate transportation of stolen property.

Morrison and his workers dismantled the bridge, built in the late 1900s, and sold it to Indiana and Illinois scrap yards for $53,345 over two months nearly five years ago.

The bridge was considered an important part of the city’s history, having serviced the Hammond, Ind., Meatpacking Co., one of the city’s first industries. It was considered for use by the South Shore commuter line or as part of a bike trail, but neither development happened.

Morrison considered it abandoned property that he had the right to salvage, he said, and argued it could never had been used by a railroad or as a pedestrian bridge due to its condition.

He said he could not get a straight answer from Hammond city officials as to who owned it when he unsuccessfully applied to the city in 1991 and in 2014 for work permits to scrap it.

Morrison and crew had half the bridge dismantled when a Hammond code inspector arrived on scene in January 2015. The inspector issued a work stop order. But state and federal agents found Morrison and crew back at the site on three separate occasions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Powers said Morrison was given a “target” letter by an FBI agent in May 2015 from former U.S. Attorney David Capp warning he was under investigation. Still, Morrison continued to sell fragments of the bridge to an East Chicago dealer more than a dozen times after that.

The judge denied Morrison’s request to remain free while he appealed his conviction and ordered Morrison to report for prison Oct. 18.