Smithfield author’s book becoming film

Published 6:04 pm Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A Smithfield author’s true crime book about the life and legends surrounding a key figure in a famous drug trafficking case with ties to Virginia is in development as a multi-episode documentary that will debut on streaming services or cable.

Los Angeles-based Urban Legends Film Company has acquired the rights to Ron Peterson Jr.’s latest book, “Chasing The Squirrel.” It’s the true story of Wallace Thrasher, a drug smuggling pilot who made millions of dollars flying marijuana and cocaine from South America, the Caribbean and Mexico into the United States. Thrasher earned the nickname “Squirrel” as a result of his ability to elude authorities.

Peterson is a Hampton native who studied journalism at Radford University, returned to Hampton Roads and has lived in Isle of Wight County for about 19 years. He worked as a sports writer and also spent most of his professional career in newspaper and TV advertising. In 2016, he began work on his first book, “Under The Trestle,” which was published in 2018. The book is about about a murder case in southwest Virginia. It was the first time in the state where the suspect, a former Virginia Tech football player, was convicted of murder without the victim’s body being found.

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That book caught the attention of retired state and federal investigators and prosecutors who began giving him tips and suggestions on other interesting cases. A retired Virginia State Police trooper suggested the Thrasher case.

“Over the course of a year, I interviewed about 100 people — attorneys that represented him, his family members and then the folks in law enforcement — some of which were DEA agents, U.S. Marshals,” said Peterson.

If you want to wait to see the documentary, here’s the back story and a spoiler alert.

In the early 1980s, the Virginia State Police figured out what Thrasher was up to but couldn’t seem to catch him with either the money or the drugs. But surveillance continued.

A few years later, one of the planes he owned, which an associate was flying at the time, crashed in the mountains in Southwest Virginia, spilling hundreds of pounds of marijuana and killing the pilot in the process. “At that point, they really had the goods on him and they could indict him not only for drug trafficking but for felony murder because someone died in the crash,” Peterson said.

But Thrasher disappeared. Then a short time later, there was a plane crash in Belize in which Trasher’s body was supposedly incinerated. Only his ring was found. U.S. authorities came to believe that Thrasher staged the crash, faked his death and went under the radar to live in secrecy, perhaps in some tropical paradise.

Thrasher’s wife, Olga, also was linked to the illicit activity. Authorities turned up the heat on her when her husband supposedly died in the plane crash. She avoided decades in prison when she cooperated with federal authorities, resulting in information that led to one of the biggest drug busts of the era.

Peterson, who is the project’s executive producer, said it’s still to be determined which streaming service the show might appear on, but his vision is to see the story told in four 60-minute or 90-minute episodes. He may have some small, on-screen roles to tie the narrative together or provide context for a particular turn of events in the storyline.

“I’m very excited to bring ‘Chasing The Squirrel’ to the screen,” Doug Tower, Urban Legends Film Co.’s founder and creative director, said in an announcement. Tower has developed content for Fox, Discovery, TLC, TNT and TBS, and called it “one of the most incredible true crime stories I’ve ever read.”

Tower’s credits include coordinating scenes on blockbuster films like “Waterworld,” “San Andreas,” “American Assassin” and “Jumanji.” He’s also done TV production work on the World Series, Daytona 500, NBA Finals, and “American Idol.” Urban Legends Film Co.’s producer Meghann Coleman and director of photography Jeff Dolen are also on the project. Urban Legends sent a crew to the East Coast to film interviews in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia with Thrasher’s family members and former associates.

Peterson attributes popular interest in true crime stories to the fact that the truth is often more compelling than fiction. He noted that two of the best selling books of all time are “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote and “Helter Skelter” by Curt Gentry and Vincent Bugliosi about California cult leader Charles Manson.

If Thrasher is still alive, he’d be in his 80s. But federal authorities say he’s dead.

In 2015, they closed the case against him, citing evidence that wasn’t made public and saying at that time that even if he was alive, securing a conviction against him would be difficult due to lack of witnesses and the fact that decades have elapsed since the events that resulted in the initial charges, The Roanoke Times said in a story that year.

However, Thrasher’s wife and son, Montana Thrasher, who is a police officer in Georgia, are alive and well. Peterson said they and many others with connections to the case cooperated with the documentary’s production.

Peterson’s next book, “Eyes Of a Monster” is the story of the previously unsolved 1981 murder of Oliva Christian in Hampton. “It was one of those murders where every detective who ever worked in Hampton had tried to solve it or worked on it as a cold case and it just frustrated the heck out of everybody that the killer was never brought to justice,” he said.

Nearly 40 years later, a new detective picked up the case and eventually identified a suspect, Ruben Moore, who was convicted in 2018 of second degree murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 32-year-old elementary school teacher’s death.