SANTA FE – What was apparently supposed to be a weekend getaway for a former Zimbabwean politician, a wealthy Houston-area businessman and others on a sprawling ranch in northeastern New Mexico turned into tragedy Wednesday evening when their helicopter crashed, killing five and leaving just one survivor.
Zimbabwean opposition leader Roy Bennett, 60, and his wife, 55-year-old Heather Bennett, died in the crash about 15 miles east of Raton, State Police have confirmed.
The others who were killed were pilot Jamie Coleman Dodd, 57, of Trinidad, Colo.; co-pilot Paul Cobb, 67, of Conroe, Texas; and wealthy businessman, investor and philanthropist Charles Burnett III, 61, of Houston.
Andra Cobb, Paul Cobb’s daughter and Burnett’s long-term girlfriend, survived and is being treated for burns and broken bones at University of New Mexico Hospital, Burnett’s lawyer confirmed Thursday.
A State Police press release said that Andra Cobb was able to escape the wreckage and called 911 around 6 p.m.
State Police, Colfax County deputies and state Department of Game and Fish officials searching for the crash site came upon a fire on a ranch and found the helicopter wreckage engulfed in flames.
Three people were found dead at the site and two men were in critical condition. One died at the scene a short time later, and the other died while being transported to a hospital, State Police say.
Obert Gutu, spokesman for Zimbabwe’s Movement for the Democratic Change opposition party, told The Associated Press that the loss of Bennett, a white man who spoke fluent Shona and drew the wrath of former President Robert Mugabe, was tragic.
Burnett’s lawyer, Martyn Hill, said the businessman had friends all over the world, which could explain why the Bennetts were on the helicopter and on their way to the nearly 12,000-acre ranch Burnett owned just north of Folsom, about 30 miles east of Raton.
“Charles wasn’t a political person, so he wasn’t involved in the politics of Africa,” Hill said. “It was not a political relationship.”
Hill said he and Burnett had become very close after they met about six years ago and that he previously had been a passenger in the Huey helicopter that crashed Wednesday. Hill said the chopper had been completely overhauled when Burnett bought it.
“No expense was spared to make sure it was in working order,” Hill said. “He always seemed to be safety first.”
Dusty Longwill, manager of the Raton Municipal Airport, said Burnett’s helicopter went from Trinidad to Raton to pick up passengers who had landed in Raton on a jet also owned by Burnett.
Longwill said the helicopter pilot had mentioned Tuesday that the helicopter was having mechanical issues but that he had apparently fixed the problems Wednesday before takeoff.
Burnett owned several businesses, including Boyert Shooting Center, which has locations in Houston and Katy, Texas. Paul Cobb was the president of the company, according to a blog post on the center’s website.
The blog says Burnett was developing a “hunting and helicopter ranch” in New Mexico and Colorado. Hills said Burnett’s companies bought the ranch in 2017.
The British-born Burnett had a fascination with tanks and “things mechanical” at a young age, the Boyert website says. He was included in the Guinness Book of World Records twice, once for recording a speed of 137 mph in a boat on Lake Windermere in the United Kingdom and for reaching 169 mph in a steam car.
“He did live life in an exciting way,” Hill said.
Paul Cobb was a retired police officer and Vietnam War veteran. Ross Eliason said he met Cobb when they were both 19 and about to be shipped off to the war in 1969. Eliason said Cobb was shot in the legs the same day Eliason’s helicopter was shot down during the war, so their paths intertwined again at a San Antonio, Texas, hospital.
“He was an excellent pilot, and so was (Jamie Coleman) Dodd,” Eliason said. “Paul was just a very sincere, very giving person.”