By Daniel Perez
During a recent study of using helicopters for law enforcement, Juàrez Mayor Ramon Galindo turned to his pilot and told him that he was famous in Mexico.
"That's infamous," corrected the pilot, Northeast resident Charles "Cheater" Bella.
Bella earned his notoriety nine years ago - July 11, 1988 - when he was part of a botched attempt to fly three inmates from the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe. He said he was forced to do so at gunpoint, but he was put on trial for his participation two months later.
A Santa Fe jury acquitted him of any wrongdoing. Several other people - including the woman who hired Bella for a flight and then held a gun on him to force him to fly to the prison - were convicted in the escape.
Bella, a licensed aviator who flies his Gazelle helicopter from his Northeast home, said he continues to be tried in the public. The most recent example was when ABC hired him during the Republic of Texas standoff at Fort Davis.
"A wise-ass (Department of Public Safety) officer said over the radio that we know who that helicopter pilot is. He spent time in prison," he said. "It's aggravating."
Bella, 52, pauses several times as he relates the story of the skyjacking and the trial.
Carol Bella, his wife of 30 years, sits across from her man next to the fireplace.
"I try to forget about it," she said. Her eyes still convey the pain. "It was not a happy time."
The episode left the couple in debt and cost him future revenue. They still owe his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, $100,000.
Bella estimates he has lost millions of dollars in business from government agencies that have "blackballed' him. He still does pleasure, medical, and search and rescue flights and hauls people and cargo.
Bella has a curse-laden soliloquy about the lack of justice provided by the New Mexico judicial system and the incompetence of the state's law enforcement officers.
He said he used to make speeches about his experience but stopped because reliving the incident generated too much anger.
Neighbor Carmen Gomez says her contact with Bella these days isn't much more than watching him fly his copter off the heliport, but has known him for most of her life. She was her dad's trusty car mechanic.
"I remember one time some of his wolves got loose and (Bella) came for them," the 34-year-old said.
The children who stay at Flying Colors Learning Center, 4637 Atlas, enjoy seeing the helicopter take off too, Director Denise Leal said. "They all run to the fence to try to get a glimpse of that bird going down," she said.
Apparently Hollywood thinks that television viewers might have the same interest in Bella's skyjacking experience.
Bella signed a contract May 2 with Los Angeles-based Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment to develop a made-for-television movie based on the incident.
Nothing much has happened since. The pilot seems neither upset nor anxious. He's been involved with Hollywood, including such films as Chuck Norris' "Lone Wolf McQuade" and Nick Nolte's "Extreme Prejudice."
In fact, the Gazelle that he piloted in the botched prison escape was the same one he flew as a Soviet helicopter in Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo III."
The Bellas spend most of their time tending to the menagerie within their nondistinct one-acre compound near the intersection of Dyer and the Patriot Freeway. Among the inhabitants are brown bears, alligators, cougars, raccoons, turkeys, chickens and a Siberian tiger named Sofie.
The owners have lost count of the number of animals under their care. Most live in large cages surrounded by grape vines and fig trees.
The couple tries to rehabilitate injured animals and return as many of them as possible to the wild. If they can't return them, they keep them until other arrangements can be made.
The Bellas' help is invaluable, Miguel Legarretta, game warden with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, said. He's worked with the Bellas for 10 years and considers them dedicated stewards of the environment.
He remembers a few years ago when the El Paso Police Department's narcotics division found a Siberian tiger cub in a home during a bust. The police called him and wanted to know what to do.
"I told them the only one to call is Cheater Bella," he said.
"Cheater has a way with animals. He can go into a cage with injured mountain lions and they turn into pussycats. It's unique," he said. "I'm happy we work close with him."