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Two-time Rohnert Park fugitive says panic led to Arkansas manhunt

Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 4:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 4:51 p.m.

A Rohnert Park man who was the subject of an Arkansas manhunt last week after fleeing from deputies in his airplane said Saturday the incident was just a stupid mistake that snowballed out of control.

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Dennis Hunter, 40, of Rohnert Park, landed his plane on a road in Arkansas.

But running from the law appears to be a hard habit to break for Dennis Franklin Hunter, who spent four years on the lam before a 2002 arrest for operating what was then the largest indoor marijuana plantation in Humboldt County history.

Hunter says the two incidents are unrelated. They occurred 15 years apart. But in both cases, Hunter ran when confronted by law enforcement officers, triggering massive manhunts that eventually landed him in a heap of legal trouble.

Hunter, 40, was sentenced in 2005 to 6½ years in federal prison for the Humboldt bust, where agents in 1998 discovered 12,000 plants on his sprawling property east of Eureka near Willow Creek.

He now has a family, owns a local company that sells planter boxes, and completed his probation in that case less than a year ago, he said.

But when deputies tried to approach Hunter on Monday at the Saline County Airport in Arkansas, where he had stopped to refuel on a business trip to the East Coast, he did the same thing he did in the Humboldt hills in 1998 — he bolted. He now faces aggravated assault and fleeing charges stemming from the incident.

“It was just a bad decision that got worse and worse and worse,” Hunter said.

Hunter is not the prominent real estate developer Dennis Hunter, though Arkansas media reports suggested he was. The developer is 70 and lives in Santa Rosa. Dennis Franklin Hunter said the two are not related.

The whole thing started Monday evening when Saline County deputies said Homeland Security officials asked them to detain Hunter when he landed at the airport southwest of Little Rock. When they got there, Hunter had already touched down and was refueling his 2001 Cirrus, a small, single-engine fixed-wing airplane.

When he spotted them, he jumped back into the cockpit and hastily took off before even reaching the runway. The assault charge stems from deputies' claim that the plane's wing nearly hit one of them as it rolled away from the fuel pump, according to sheriff's officials.

Hunter said Saturday it was possible Homeland Security officials wanted him questioned because his plane is out of compliance with a safety regulation and therefore wasn't properly registered. His plane is equipped with a parachute that is supposed to be replaced every 10 years, but a new one costs about $20,000 and he hadn't done it, which may have been the reason for the inquiry, he said.

“It's really stupid and I'm foolish for that shortcut,” Hunter said.

But it's unclear whether that is the reason or if federal officials had other reasons to want Hunter detained. Saline County sheriff's officials said no one was available Saturday who could comment on the incident.

Hunter said he saw and heard deputies ordering him to stop, but panicked. They were never in any danger of being struck by his plane, he said.

Hunter took off, but he didn't get far.

Deputies said Hunter left behind a credit card slip with his name on it in the fuel pump. A short while later, Hunter set the plane down on a rural road near the town of Stuttgart, about 60 miles southeast of Little Rock. He said he landed because the engine wasn't running properly and because he realized officers may very well be waiting for him at the next airport, he said.

He landed safely, but the plane's nose gear ran into a ditch, according to news photos from the scene.

Hunter said he spent the night near the plane, but when law enforcement officers drove up the next morning, he fled again, running into the woods, he said.

That sparked a manhunt that included numerous officers, bloodhounds and horses.

Law enforcement officers in Arkansas appear to have been aware of Hunter's criminal background, which may have contributed to how seriously they took the search.

Saline County Sheriff Bruce Pennington told a local TV station that Hunter “has had numerous scraps with law enforcement and is not afraid to fight law enforcement. Obviously that's true.”

A 1998 story about the bust in the North Coast Journal explained that Hunter, then 25, “became confrontational” with undercover officers who were investigating his property.

Hunter declined to say where in Arkansas he hid or went next, but eventually he contacted an attorney and turned himself in Friday, he said. He was released on $150,000 bond and has a court hearing next month.

The event caused a flurry of media activity in Arkansas, which followed closely the story of the “fugitive pilot” who had evaded deputies and was wanted by Homeland Security.

Hunter owns GeoPot, which designs and sells fabric pots and planter boxes. He recently moved the business from Petaluma to Occidental Road in Santa Rosa. Hunter pulled up to the business Saturday afternoon driving a Prius and initially declined to answer questions about the episode other than to chastise the media for blowing it out of proportion.

He later acknowledged his own errors, said he is embarrassed by the whole affair, and intends to set it right.

“It was sensational and stupid all at the same time,” he said.

Saturday evening he acknowledged that he was the same Dennis Franklin Hunter from the Humboldt County bust, but said it was irrelevant to the current situation and publicity about it could negatively affect his business and family.

“That was a totally different life. This is my past and I've done a lot to get past it all,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.

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