By JENNIFER KAY
The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 2, 2006; 4:13 AM
MIAMI SPRINGS, Fla. -- For 20 years, Theodore Karantsalis has been haunted by one question: What happened to the body of his friend Paul Lorence after his Air Force jet crashed off the coast of Libya?
Karantsalis, a Miami-Dade County librarian, rewords the question about once a year, then fires off another Freedom of Information Act request to the Pentagon. Lorence's family in California has been asking the same question since learning the 31-year-old Air Force captain's plane went down during an April 15, 1986, U.S. strike on two Libyan cities.
The answer from military officials was almost always "we don't know." But buoyed by a report they recently obtained detailing a 2004 fact-finding trip military investigators took to the North African nation, the family and Karantsalis are hopeful about learning the location of Lorence's body.
"We have to find him, or we fail," Karantsalis said.
Lorence was a weapons system operator with the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing based in England when President Reagan ordered a bombing raid that targeted a frogman school, a Tripoli airfield and the compound that contained the military staff headquarters and family home of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's leader. It was in retaliation for Libya's alleged involvement nine days earlier in the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub that killed two U.S. soldiers.
Lorence's F-111F, flown by Maj. Fernando Ribas-Dominicci, went down less than 10 miles from the Libyan coast. A search by the U.S. Navy failed to find any wreckage or either airman's body. Three years later, Libya returned Ribas-Dominicci's body, which they said had washed ashore. An autopsy determined that he had drowned.
Lorence's family recently made a personal appeal to the Libyan government for information, said the airman's younger stepbrother, Jeff Kruger, a private investigator and retired police detective in Antioch, Calif.
"We're asking for a humanitarian gesture from the Libyan government to ease our pain and suffering and answer as many questions about what happened to our family member," said Kruger, who has been making independent inquiries.
Lorence is considered killed in action-body not recovered, according to the Defense Department's Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs Office.
"I believe Libya does have these remains in their possession, and I feel it's time to confront our government and seek our government's assistance to get them back," Karantsalis said in his suburban Miami home.
Karantsalis and Lorence met as altar boys in the early 1970s in the San Francisco Bay area. Lorence became the younger boy's baby sitter and chauffeur to football games.
"Paul was a few years older. What that meant was Paul was able to drive a car. My father had extra tickets to Oakland Raiders games, and all I needed was somebody to take me," Karantsalis said. He last saw Lorence in a math class they shared at San Francisco State University in 1980.
Karantsalis' first FOIA request simply asked for "all information you have relating to how my friend Captain Paul Lorence perished." Nine FOIA requests later, his March 2005 request sought "a complete copy of the investigative report and records relating to Air Force Captain Paul Lorence," specifically the whereabouts of his remains.
Frustrated by a lack of answers, he filed a federal lawsuit in January claiming the Department of Defense and the Air Force "have wrongfully withheld the requested records."
Kruger and Karantsalis call the release of a Pentagon report earlier this year the first real progress in their long search, though it poses more questions than answers.
U.S. investigators visiting Libya in 2004 viewed wreckage from an F-111 and interviewed witnesses who saw Lorence's plane crash, its wreckage or items for it such as U.S. Air Force helmets, according to the report.
The report hypothesizes that Lorence's body could have washed ashore, been swept out to sea or into caves along the coastline, or remains in his aircraft's missing escape pod. The missing personnel office is still awaiting responses to investigators' follow-up inquiries, spokesman Larry Greer said.
"There's no indication that they're hiding anything," Greer said of the Libyans. "We just need to wade through the diplomatic process to re-establish ties."
On the Net:
Online petition seeking the return of Lorence's remains: http://www.paullorence.com