By MICHAEL ASTOR
The Associated Press
Saturday, June 2, 2007; 3:31 AM
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- In a key legal step toward assigning blame for Brazil's deadliest plane crash, two U.S. pilots and four Brazilian air traffic controllers were indicted on charges equivalent to involuntary manslaughter for a mid-air collision that killed 154 people.
Judge Murilo Mendes on Friday ordered the two U.S. pilots to appear in Brazil in late August to give preliminary depositions. But a lawyer for the pilots suggested the men would not return.
The charges were filed by a prosecutor last week in a federal court in Sinop, a small city near the Amazon jungle site where a jetliner plunged into the rain forest last September after colliding with an executive jet flown by the Americans.
All 154 people aboard the Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA passenger plane died. The executive jet landed safely.
The pilots of the smaller aircraft _ Joseph Lepore, 42, of Bay Shore, N.Y., and Jan Paul Paladino, 34, of Westhampton, N.Y. _ were charged with negligently exposing an aircraft to danger. The charge is similar to involuntary manslaughter because deaths occurred, and is punishable by one to three years in prison, said court spokesman Fabio Paz.
A lawyer for the pilots said the charges were unfounded.
"The pilots' conduct was completely competent throughout the flight and cannot be fairly characterized as criminal," said Joel R. Weiss. "The allegations against the pilots are inaccurate, and the pilots are innocent."
He blamed Brazilian air traffic controllers for putting the two planes on a collision course, "on the same airway and altitude, traveling toward each other."
Weiss also suggested the pilots would not go back to be questioned or if they are convicted. But he said the pilots will eventually tell their side of the story. A call to a phone number listed under Lepore's name went unanswered Friday. Paladino's number was unlisted.
The two pilots were prevented from leaving Brazil for two months after the crash, and spent the time holed up in a Rio de Janeiro hotel. They were allowed to leave the country after promising to return for any court proceedings.
They had been taking the Brazilian made Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet, owned by Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based ExcelAire Service Inc., on its maiden voyage to the United States when the collision occurred Sept. 29.
Federal Prosecutor Thiago Lemos de Andrade accused the pilots of accidentally turning off a transponder that transmitted the Legacy's location and of failing to follow their flight plan. He also faulted the Brazilian controllers for allowing the two planes to continue on a collision course.
Andrade said one of the four controllers, Joao Marcelo Fernandes dos Santos, knew the two planes were heading toward each other but failed to notify his replacement after finishing a shift. He was indicted with the more serious crime of knowingly exposing an aircraft to danger _ similar to manslaughter _ while the others face the same charges as the pilots.
Andrade also said controller Felipe Santos dos Reis gave the Legacy pilots incorrect instructions and did not tell them they were supposed to change altitude during the flight.
"The basic elements of the authorization, especially concerning the change in altitude, were simply ignored by (Reis)," Andrade said, according to the Web site of Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil's largest newspaper.
A lawyer for the controllers, Fabio Tomas de Souza, called the indictments of his clients "a judicial aberration" because Brazilian authorities insisted for months that the controllers _ all members of the military _ could only be tried in military courts. Andrade's decision to seek their indictments came as a surprise.
Associated Press Writer Alan Clendenning contributed to this report from Sao Paulo, Brazil.