The CIA, Hypnosis, and Cocaine: Why a Pilot Faked His Own Death in Front of His Family in 1977


On Sept. 18, 1977, Hazen, Arkansas’s Gary Betzner took a daytime drive with his wife and daughter in his El Camino to a dairy bar. Afterwards, he stopped on a bridge due to car trouble, opened the hood to check on the problem, and then suddenly and inexplicably dove into the White River. This sent his wife Sally into hysterics, and cast an immediate and terrible pall over his family, which—like everyone else in their small, rural southern town—was plagued by a single, persistent question: why?

[Spoilers follow]

For an answer to that query, directors Phil Lott and Ari Mark (and executive producer Adam McKay) turn to the one person who can best shed light on this seemingly tragic event: Gary himself, who winds up being not only the subject of their three-part HBO docuseries The Invisible Pilot (April 4), but its primary narrator. Sitting for extended chats in the present as well as at regular intervals over the past decade (via older footage shot by Craig Hodges, a friend of Gary’s son Travis), Gary proves a resurrected ghost at the outset of this latest true-crime affair. The fact that he didn’t commit suicide back in 1977, however, is only the first of many bombshells delivered by Lott and Mark’s venture, which begins with a bang before petering out once it trades entertainingly wacko criminality for sober political intrigue.


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Gary rose to local renown as an ace crop duster with unparalleled piloting skills; he was a daredevil who couldn’t resist performing flips, flying under bridges, and skimming his craft’s tires along the water. Sally met Gary on July 20, 1969, the night of the moon landing, and she describes it as a universe-shaking moment—a notion visualized by Lott and Mark through amusingly edited clips of the astronauts’ outer-space feat. Gary already had a wife, but once his daughter Polly was born, he got a divorce and married Sally, with whom he had two more children, Travis and Sara Lee. He established—and then sold—the Betzner Flying Service, moving his clan to Alaska for a pipeline opportunity that didn’t pan out. With few prospects and even less cash, Gary turned to another source of income: using his planes to smuggle marijuana.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Gary Betzner with his family in 1974</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">HBO</div>

Gary Betzner with his family in 1974


A subsequent bout of painful gout led Gary to an unlikely cure: cocaine, a narcotic that he admits was used both to alleviate his ailment and for recreational purposes. When he was busted in a giant 1977 Miami DEA sting, though, Gary faced 20 years behind bars. Rather than do that stint, he decided to stage his death and go on the run. To guarantee that this ruse went according to plan, he and Sally took a three-month self-hypnosis course in order to program Sally into believing the lie that Gary was really dead. Somehow, this insanity worked and Gary successfully went on the lam, during which time he became a drug-advocating hippie named Lucas Noel Harmony who saw nothing wrong with either consuming or transporting illegal substances. Before long, he was revealing his still-breathing existence to a stunned Travis and Sara Lee in Hawaii (where they all lived as nudists), and he eventually found himself employed as a smuggler for George Morales, a Miami speedboat racer with deep ties to Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel in Colombia.