A year after his strange 800-mile flight that captured national attention, Thomas L. Root of Alexandria faces a prison sentence, can't practice law or fly a plane, is wiped out financially and has many who know him saying he was trying to kill himself last July 13.
What was then a blurry picture of Root is clearer now, from court records and interviews. His considerable financial and legal troubles last summer were becoming overwhelming, providing a possible rationale for suicide when he left National Airport at 6:26 a.m. a year ago today.
A few days before the flight, "he looked lost to the world," said Cary S. Tepper, a McLean lawyer who had worked in Root's communications law firm in Washington. "He had this blank stare on his face like the world was collapsing."
A month earlier, business associate Ronald D. Baptist, of Londonderry, N.H., said Root told him: "Sometimes I feel like putting a gun to my head and ending it all. I think the insurance money would be worth more to my wife than I am."
Root wouldn't talk for this article, but he has rejected all suicide theories. Still, there is no question his life was skidding out of control last summer. In the week before the flight, Root's landlord wanted to boot him out for failing to pay $65,000 in rent. And a North Carolina client threatened to have Root disbarred; Root wrote him a $50,000 check, although he had $605 in the bank.
On July 13, minutes before reaching his Rocky Mount, N.C., destination, Root told air traffic controllers he was having difficulty breathing.
Shortly after that, Root said, he blacked out and the Cessna 210 -- tracked by 19 military planes -- continued on automatic pilot for four hours before it ran out of fuel and spiraled 10,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas. He was rescued with a bullet wound in the abdomen; Root kept a .32-caliber revolver on board.
The National Transportation Safety Board is almost finished with its investigation, but with the plane and revolver at the bottom of the ocean, it is unlikely the agency will be able to draw firm conclusions.
Root has stuck to his account, despite its inconsistencies: Doctors haven't found a reason why he'd black out; some of the military pilots saw Root moving; gun experts said it is unlikely the gun discharged on its own; forensic specialists said the wound likely was self-inflicted.
Root, 37, has said there is no connection between the flight and the legal and financial problems.
On Aug. 6, Root is to be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for pleading guilty to five felony counts of counterfeiting, forgery and defrauding clients. The crimes stemmed from Root's representation of clients seeking FM radio station licenses from the Federal Communications Commission.
He also is under indictment on fraud charges in North Carolina and Illinois, and probes of Root are continuing in Georgia and Florida.
The D.C. Bar and FCC have bounced Root from practicing law, and disbarment proceedings have been started in Root's home state of Ohio. Root has been grounded from flying until the blackout can be explained.
Only the Drug Enforcement Administration has cleared Root. After initially suspecting him of being involved in drugs because guns and ether were found in a locker Root used, agents accepted his explanation that he collected firearms and used ether to clean his plane. Ether can be used to process drugs.
Root could wind up owing several hundred thousand dollars in fines, legal fees and other debts that are piling up. A judge agreed to Root's request to withdraw his bankruptcy proceeding, though creditors can file individual actions. But Root has little money, his attorney says.
Some money is coming in, but Root is squirreling it away for his wife, Kathy, and three young children, who will leave Alexandria after the sentencing. Federal rules ensure Root will serve some prison time; Root will ask for leniency because of the family hardship.
Root has portrayed himself as a victim -- of reporters, investigators, his clients and prosecutors.
"The flight put a spotlight on him," said Brett A. Geer, of St. Petersburg, Fla., Root's brother-in-law. "People in the halls of power said, 'Let's tear his life apart until we find everything' and that's what they did."
Had the bizarre flight not occurred, Root and family members contend, he might not have faced charges because many people who had dealings with him went to authorities only after news coverage of the flight.
U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens, whose prosecution led to Root's guilty plea, declined to comment. The North Carolina official whose investigation led to Root's indictment in that state said, "Tom Root's flight had nothing to do with our investigation."
Although most of the major legal actions against Root followed his flight, Root knew before July 13 his law practice was under scrutiny. He was interviewed by federal agents three months before the flight about altering federal documents.
Root had been repeatedly admonished by clients and FCC law judges for being careless, tardy and unreliable, mistakes that cost him clients and money. His debts were mounting.
The problems stemmed from Root's work representing clients associated with Sonrise Management Services Inc., a Georgia company that pooled groups of investors to apply for radio station licenses from the FCC.
The company has since folded and its management has been indicted, along with Root, on securities fraud charges in North Carolina. Root has pleaded not guilty.
Root was the attorney for 167 of the partnerships and stood to collect more than $2 million in legal fees. But it would have been almost impossible for him to do all the work involved, other lawyers said, because license proceedings are time-consuming.
Because his was essentially a one-man shop, Root could not keep up and several applications were dismissed when he missed deadlines.
"We knew sooner or later he'd crack," said Lauren A. Colby, of Frederick, Md., one of five communications lawyers interviewed who knew Root and believe he was trying to commit suicide. "There's no mystery to it."
Sonrise and Root had a falling out, and the company cut off payments to Root last spring. Sonrise accounted for 90 percent of Root's business.
Instead of extricating himself, Root continued to represent some of the partnerships and, according to court records, committed crimes to expedite license applications.
Among other things, Root took FCC seals from official documents and affixed them on a sheet of paper to make his own legal document.
In the days after the flight, Root's family grilled him to see whether he was telling the truth. Root did not waver.
"If it was suicide, he wouldn't have bungled it that badly," Geer said. "Either it's like he says -- that he didn't know what happened -- or he's the best actor I've ever seen."