Longform

Superthief

It's strange to jump-start an airplane off the battery in a pickup truck, but that's exactly what Joshua Paul Calhoun attempted to do on March 4 of this year when he couldn't start the engine on a plane he was trying to steal.

Hours earlier, just after sunrise, 28-year-old Calhoun had driven out to the tiny municipal airport in Athens, basically a runway and a couple hangars on the outskirts of town. The plane, a single-prop Beechcraft Bonanza, was tied down with three ropes on a slab of asphalt not far from the barbed-wire fence around the airport. Calhoun got into the cockpit, but the battery was dead. He left the airport for about 30 minutes and returned, parking his truck next to the plane and hooking up the jumper cables. The engine still wouldn't crank.

Carroll Dyson, a 65-year-old retired pilot, watched the whole thing unfold from the opposite end of the runway, through the window of his shop where he runs a small repair, flight training and charter service. Dyson, a large, white-haired man, had never seen Calhoun before but thought he looked young and athletic, and even though Dyson didn't know the plane's owner well, he knew it was Todd Pearah, the son of a former professional football player. Calhoun could've been Pearah's nephew or son, Dyson thought, but he decided to drive out to the plane and check it out.

"Hello," Dyson said as he approached the plane. "Do you know the Pearah family?"

"Yes sir," Calhoun said, ­smiling. "Good friends. Mr. Pearah needs me to go down to South Texas and check out a ranch for him."

With that, Dyson showed Calhoun how to jump-start an airplane.

Dyson realized something was wrong driving back to his shop when he saw the Bonanza scream past him along the runway, taking off with the cockpit door still swinging open. He called Pearah, realized he'd been had and called the police.

Meanwhile, Calhoun flew the plane about two miles east, according to Dyson, then reversed course west for another three miles before crashing into a strand of trees. Uninjured, Calhoun could've simply escaped like he'd done for years, except his truck was still at the airport.

The police were at the far end of the runway talking to Dyson when Calhoun showed up to retrieve his truck. Dyson says that all of a sudden, they looked down the runway and saw Calhoun's truck moving real slow. The police sped down the runway, and according to an account in the Tyler Morning Telegraph, Calhoun "saw the officers, stepped out of the truck, which was still in gear, and kept going, and walked toward the officers. The officers had to run after the truck to stop it."

The arrest of a rural plane thief made headlines at newspapers across the state, including the Tyler paper — the New York Times of East Texas — and as far west as Lubbock. A reporter from the Athens Review got a jailhouse interview and Calhoun told him, "I've always been fascinated with flying."

"When I found out who it was, that he had stole the airplane and supposedly didn't know how to fly it, me knowing Josh, it didn't surprise me one bit," says Dan Parker, the chief deputy at the Henderson County Sheriff's Department.

Calhoun was already known to law enforcement in rural counties all over East Texas for stealing trucks, horse trailers, tractors and cattle, but the local cops never could keep Calhoun behind bars for long.

But now he's in federal custody. His court-appointed attorney, Norman McGinnis, wouldn't allow Calhoun to speak with the Houston Press for this story, but through police records, court documents and interviews, the Press has pieced together Calhoun's tale, including the five months that followed the arrest, in which Calhoun escaped to Mexico, eluded federal agents at the border re-entering the country, dragged a border agent 40 feet down the road when the agent tried to stop him, stole a drilling rig from a commercial construction company, and delivered meth to an undercover cop at a liquor store but escaped again by going off-road in a 4x4 truck.

"Country boys are ballsy," laughed Ray Nutt, the Henderson County sheriff who had been chasing Calhoun for years.

This is the story of a transformation, as Parker puts it, from "just an average teenager" to an East Texas Superthief.
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Towns in East Texas along crumbling blacktop highways are full of boarded-up gas stations and cafes, some replaced with cash loan and pawn shops, as once thriving communities continue a post-oil boom decay. In the last couple decades, crude oil production from the East Texas Oil Field, the largest oil field in the country, has decreased, and so have the jobs — high-paying jobs for workers without much education. At the same time methamphetamine use has exploded through the region, creating a lush breeding ground for thieves.

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Paul Knight
Contact: Paul Knight