A fortune the CIA built: Former airline owners sell $36M Coral Gables teardown

The trust of the late Bunny Bastian sold her waterfront teardown estate in Coral Gables for $36 million. The mansion is an artifact of her family’s fortune, stemming from a former CIA airline, embedded in global affairs of the 20th century. 

The trust of Mary Jean Bastian, a.k.a. Bunny Bastian, sold the house at 140 Arvida Parkway in Gables Estates, listing agent Liz Hogan of Compass confirmed. The deed has yet to be recorded, and the buyer is unknown. Judy Zeder of the Jills Zeder Group at Coldwell Banker Realty brought the buyer.

The property was listed for $45 million in November, Redfin shows. It is among the priciest sales in Gables Estates history, Hogan said. 

Bunny Bastian, who died in April of last year, was a devout Catholic who chaired galas, played tennis and hosted an annual Christmas Ladies Luncheon. Her obituary describes a laundry list of charities, societies, and arts groups she championed.

It also notes her role in the family business, Southern Air Transport, a cargo airline based in Miami in the latter half of the 20th century. Bastian’s husband, James H. Bastian, whom she met while they were law students at George Washington University, bought the airline in 1979. But it wasn’t your typical cargo business.

Southern Air Transport was founded in Miami in 1947 as a small charter operation shipping goods to the Bahamas. The CIA bought the airline in 1960, using it as a front to obscure its operations, according to published reports. In 1973, CIA operative George A. Doole Jr., who led the airline during the agency’s ownership, bought it for $2.1 million. Before buying it himself six years later, James H. Bastian worked for Doole as the airline’s vice president and general counsel.

Under Bastian’s ownership, business boomed, fueled by government contracts and an ever-expanding fleet. The Bastians moved to Miami in 1984 and bought the Arvida Parkway house for $1.2 million that year, records show. 

Two years later, in 1986, Southern Air Transport played a crucial role in the Iran-Contra scandal, as the porter of weapons to Iran and the Contras in Nicaragua, according to published reports.  “We pride ourselves on confidentiality. Our customers can rely on it,” Southern Air Transport spokesperson William Kress told the Los Angeles Times that December. 

After the FBI opened an investigation into Southern Air Transport and its role in Iran-Contra, reports emerged of it playing a part in a booming Miami industry –– cocaine smuggling. The airline’s business dealings with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel included a guns-for-cocaine swap in Barranquilla, Colombia, the Washington Post reported in 1987. 

Southern Air Transport continued its operations into the 1990s, even assisting the U.S. Air Force in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. The company declared bankruptcy in 1998, and the Bastians sold it, according to published reports. 

James Bastian died in 2000, his wife’s obituary shows. She renovated the 1.5-acre Gables Estates home in 2006, according to published reports. The 11,500-square-foot mansion has seven bedrooms and five bathrooms, records show. The property has a pool and 200 feet of waterfront on both the front and back of the property. It was built in 1963 by industrialist Arthur Vining Davis’s Arvida Corporation, also known for building the Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club in Boca Raton. 

Hogan said the estate’s bay frontage attracted the buyer. 

Gables Estates, a gated community known for its larger waterfront estates, has had a number of high-profile sales this year. “There’s a high demand for the neighborhood,” Hogan said. 

Leon Medical Centers CEO Benjamin Leon III sold a waterfront vacant lot for $10.4 million in March. His father, Benjamin Leon Jr. sold a waterfront home to local attorney John Ruiz for $22 million in October. Ruiz sold a separate waterfront mansion in the community for $30 million in January. 

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