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Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein's "air force" of three helicopters continued buzzing Niagara and Orleans counties in 1999, spotting 600 marijuana plants in the countryside.

Sheriff's helicopter crew members also made two daring Niagara River rescues and flew a lot of other missions, such as taking aerial crime scene photos and searching for crime suspects, illegal aliens, smugglers and missing persons.

The Air Support Unit commander, Sgt. Kevin LoCicero, said the helicopter crews located and helped harvest and destroy about 400 marijuana plants growing in rural Niagara County fields and another 200 in Orleans County.

"The estimated street value (of the plants) is $1.5 million," LoCicero said. He said the sheriff's harvest "removed drugs from the street that might have been sold to our children and probably put a nice dent in the pocketbooks of local drug growers."

The harvest equaled the number of marijuana plants the Air Support Unit located in 1997 but was significantly less than the 1,400 found in 1998. In 1996, the year the Air Support Unit began, the sheriff's two helicopters located 300 marijuana plants in the two-county area.

Why were there fewer plants located last year than in 1998?

"I'd like to believe that's because we ruined it for a lot of them (marijuana growers) last year, and they decided not to try it again, at least not in our jurisdiction," LoCicero said.

The real highlight for the unit this year, however, included the rescue last April of a Canadian fisherman who was stranded on a rock in the middle of the lower Niagara River rapids. The fisherman, James Lee Walker, 18, of Welland, wandered out about 30 feet in the early-morning hours to a rock in the lower river not far from the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge.

He became trapped when American and Canadian power companies stopped taking water into their reservoirs, causing the level of the swirling waters to rise rapidly. Walker was soon in trouble and out of reach of other fishermen, who tried, unsuccessfully, to throw him a rope and pull him back to shore.

Before the rapids could rise high enough to sweep him away, a sheriff's helicopter arrived, descended into the gorge, and Sgt. Ronald Steen, the flight technician, stepped out onto the helicopter's skids, reached out from the hovering craft and pulled Walker in to safety.

Another dramatic rescue occurred last August, when a 58-year-old woman with apparent psychiatric problems wandered out into the upper rapids to a small, brush-covered island about 175 feet from the brink of the Horseshoe Falls. A tourist told State Parks Police he saw a woman wandering out in knee-deep water off Three Sisters Island.

When officers responded and could not locate the woman, they called in helicopters from both the Niagara County and Erie County sheriff's departments.

The Niagara County crew found the woman when they saw her leg sticking out from under some brush on a small rocky island above the Horseshoe Falls. But without pontoons on the helicopter, the Niagara County crew could not land in the treacherous water.

The Niagara County crew set down on solid land nearby and met with an Erie County Sheriff's Department helicopter crew to work out a joint rescue plan.

Erie County's helicopter has pontoons, so crews landed the chopper downstream from the woman, and Sgt. Jeffrey Miller of the Niagara County crew walked out about 15 yards in swirling, chest-high water and was able to bring the woman -- who floated a short distance to him -- back to the helicopter, which flew her to safety.

As a result, Beilein said he expects to purchase a used set of military pontoons from Canada for one of the helicopters sometime this year. He said the department will receive a $6,000 grant through the help of State Sen. George Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda.

As for his little air force's accomplishments over the past three years, Beilein said: "I'm very happy with it. We've proven it can save lives. We've proven it can be effective in drug interdiction. That's why we got it, and we've proven we can do both."

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