2 Houston pilots home after detainment in Panama

March 2, 2012 - 6:55 PM

HOUSTON (AP) — Two Houston pilots are back in the United States after a 10-month ordeal in which they were detained in Panama as part of a money laundering investigation.

Kenneth Chonoski and Carl Moody were conditionally released and allowed to temporarily return home on Thursday. Both were arrested last May on suspicion of money laundering after landing a private jet in the Central American country.

The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/xnAIHt ) reports customs inspectors found $2.3 million in the bags of a passenger from Honduras.

After their arrests, the men were eventually transferred to penitentiary where each lost about 20 pounds and neither could speak Spanish.

"Prison is a very bad place, and I don't wish it on anybody," Chonoski, 28, told the newspaper after he and Moody were welcomed home Thursday by family and friends at a local airport. "We are looking forward to getting back our good names and getting on with our lives."

After four months of confinement, Moody, 67, who was battling health issues, was released from prison but ordered to stay in the country pending the case's outcome.

Chonoski was released under similar conditions in December.

Ida Mirones, a Panamanian prosecutor, told The Associated Press on Friday the two men were given permission to temporarily return to the United States so they could renew their pilot licenses.

"They (the pilots) continue being investigated with other persons," she said.

The pilots will return to Panama in about a month or so after they finish their training, Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for American Jet International, their employer, said Friday.

The two men will then remain in Panama until their case is resolved. Hicks said the men are hoping an agreement can be reached allowing them to return permanently to the U.S. until their case is done.

"They have absolute trust in the Panamanian justice system. They believe it's a fair system," Hicks said.

The case won't be considered closed until charges are resolved against all those originally accused. Three passengers, including a Colombian who claimed to be working secretly for the Drug Enforcement Administration, remain in custody. Also accused in the case are a Panamanian customs officer and a chauffeur.

All those arrested in the case were charged with money laundering, Mirones said.

The pilots' Panamanian lawyer, Rosendo Miranda, said it was rare for the men to be allowed to leave the country when charges against everyone accused in the case had not yet been resolved.

"We are absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing," Moody, an ex-Green Beret, told the newspaper. "We have proved our innocence. (Prosecutors) believe us and are letting us start to get back to our lives."

During the ordeal, American Jet International has been paying their salaries, legal costs, housing and other expenses.

The men's situation was addressed by Attorney General Eric Holder at a congressional hearing last month in which he denied claims the pilots were part of a U.S. undercover operation.

Moody, who had only been with the company only a month before his arrest, said he'd missed much while away, including his son graduating from Army Ranger school and being deployed to Afghanistan.

Chonoski, who had only been with the company seven years, said he'd had to put his life on hold as well, including having to postpone his wedding.

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Associated Press writer Kathia Martinez in Panama City contributed to this report.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com