New book draws attention to past NRV drug smuggling

One of Wallace Thrasher’s planes crashed into the side of a mountain near Fancy Gap in Carroll County in 1984 killing its pilot and leaving behind 1,200 pounds of marijuana.

Ron Peterson, Jr., who last year penned “Under the Trestle” about the Gina Hall case, has now written a book titled “Chasing the Squirrel,” which examines the exploits of Wallace Thrasher, who is alleged to have made millions of dollars flying illegal drugs into the New River Valley in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. Squirrel was Thrasher‘s nickname.

Police were hot on his trail in 1984 when Thrasher is said to have faked his own death in a Belize plane crash. His wife, Olga, became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), helping with the biggest drug bust in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Authorities have since spent decades trying to discover whether Thrasher survived that plane crash.

Early in his research for “Under the Trestle,” Peterson met with retired state police officer Austin Hall, the lead investigator in the Gina Hall case. The lawman became one of the sources for Peterson’s book and eventually a good friend.

According to Peterson, Hall told him he should write a book about Wally Thrasher. Peterson’s reply was, “Who is Wally Thrasher?” The police officer proceeded to fill him in, and, according to Peterson, “I was hooked on the amazing story, which also happened to take place in and around the New River Valley.”

Thrasher had grown up in the NRV, having graduated from Pulaski High School after playing football and running track. He also had a stint in the Navy and even spent time modeling. He was described as 6-2 with deepset blue eyes and a thick mane of graying hair. He once spent two years in a Mexican jail on drug smuggling charges.

The questions surrounding Thrasher’s disappearance started in October of 1984 when a plane owned by him crashed into a mountainside near Fancy Gap. Police found more than 1,200 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $1 million in the wreckage. The charred remains of a pilot were also found.

Police say the pilot was Michael Joel Goldstein, who had fueled the plane a few days before he crashed in Ft. Pierce, Florida. The plane was a military surplus reconnaissance aircraft, registered to a fictitious Richmond address. Thrasher paid for the plane’s past hanger fees. He also had moved back to Southwest Virginia from Ft. Pierce.

Six months later, another one of Thrasher’s planes crashed in Belize. In that crash, police were told, Wallace Thrasher died.

Utilizing information from the Wally Thrasher investigation, DEA agent Don Lincoln went undercover, posing as a drug-smuggling pilot. Twelve international traffickers were arrested, and more than $160 million in cocaine and cash were seized during the course of the investigation.

“The most interesting thing to me was Wally’s many adventures as a pilot smuggling drugs in the 70s and 80s,” said Peterson. “It was truelife James Bond kind of stuff.  He was in at least two plane crashes and lived to tell the tale, once fought a 500pound gorilla on a dare, spent two years in a filthy Mexican prison, tangled with two Soviet MIG airplanes over Cuba, and bribed his way out of a jail in the Bahamas. And then most notably, he is believed by many to have faked his own death in a staged plane crash in Belize in 1984.”

An interesting part of the story is Olga Thrasher. Peterson said the book could have been titled, “The Smuggler’s Wife,” because of the fascinating part she played in the story. 

In the new book, the author points out that all the charges against Olga were dropped, and she has been a perfect law-abiding citizen ever since, raising the two children she had with Wally who are now very successful adults. “In fact, Wally and Olga’s son, Montana, is now a police officer. How’s that for irony?” Peterson asked

Peterson spent much time interviewing Olga, who shared a great deal of information about Wally’s illegal activities. She currently lives in Georgia.

Also, Wally’s son, Montana, who has done extensive research on his own, shared information with Peterson. Many of his old Pulaski friends and classmates shared a lot of stories and information, too. 

Montana put Peterson in touch with a few of Wally’s smuggling associates down in Florida, pilots now in their 70s, who eventually did time in prison and are now on the straight and narrow. 

“There were some amazing stories from them. On the law enforcement side, my main sources were retired state police special agent David Dean, retired DEA agent Don Lincoln, who gave details of the incredible undercover operation he launched as a result of Olga’s information; and retired US Marshal Wayne Pike (who was also Sheriff of Wythe County), who spent a lot of time pursuing Wally. All in all, I spoke with or interviewed over 100 sources,” Peterson said.

To this day, family and friends believed Thrasher died in the Belize crash. Others say he survived and went on to lead a charmed life somewhere in Florida or the Caribbean.

Wallace “Wally” Thrasher was being investigated in the early ’80s for his role in smuggling drugs into Southwest Virginia. His story is the subject of a new book written by Ron Peterson, Jr.

In August 2015, the drug indictment against Thrasher was dismissed. If he did survive, he would be in his mid to late 70s today.

The book took Peterson about a year and a half to write, winding up with 352 pages. And just what did Peterson conclude when his research and writing were done?

Peterson does not believe Thrasher died in the alleged crash in Belize. 

The body in the crash was burned to ashes, and the flames were so intense that the substructure of the plane was actually melted. Yet, somehow, Thrasher‘s gold wedding band was retrieved from the wreckage and later given to Olga.

As DEA agent Lincoln said, “That ring would have melted. It would have been an ingot of gold.”  

“But I think there is a good chance Wally may have died in the days or years that followed the crash,” said Peterson.  “As many people told me, Wally was just too charismatic of a guy to remain off the grid. He was never able to just blend in and live anonymously.”

So far, the book reviews have been favorable, and Peterson said sales have been great. “It was the #12 best-seller in Amazon’s new releases in true crime last week and is one of the top selling books at a few of Barnes & Noble’s retail locations,” he said.

In the NRV, the book is available at Barnes & Noble in Christiansburg (along with other Barnes & Noble locations), at the Radford University bookstore, and on Amazon and any other online book retailer. It is available only in paperback (Kindle/eBook and Audible audiobook should be available in a month or so), and the paperback price is $20.99.

For more information on the book or the story of Wallace Thrasher, check out Peterson’s Facebook page at ChasingTheSquirrelBook.

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