The crew of a Marine Corps jet that severed a gondola cable in February, killing 20 people, had been given outdated and incorrect information about flight restrictions and obstacles on their training route in the Italian Alps, a defense attorney said today.
Calling the collision "an accident waiting to happen," Frank Spinner, a civilian attorney for the pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby, said, "It's not necessarily reckless hitting . . . an obstacle when you don't know it exists." He added, "This could have happened to anyone flying that mission that day."
The comments came during the opening day of a hearing here to determine whether Ashby and his navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, will be court-martialed for the Feb. 3 accident involving their EA-6B Prowler. Two other crew members, Capt. William L. Raney II and Capt. Chandler Seagraves, await a similar ruling after their hearing was suspended last month pending completion of the hearing involving Ashby and Schweitzer.
All four aviators are charged with negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter. If convicted on all counts, each could face a life sentence.
Spinner cited evidence that virtually everyone in the Marine squadron, then based at Aviano Air Base in northeast Italy, was unaware of regulations prohibiting them from flying below 2,000 feet above ground level in the mountains.
"The squadron commander was not aware, the safety officer was not aware, yet this crew is being held accountable," said Spinner, who said charts given to the crew did not accurately show the cable line the crew hit near the village of Cavalese.
The lead naval criminal investigator, Mark Fallon, testified today that his team had found no evidence to support rumors of a "cable car club" consisting of aviators who had flown below gondola cables.
Lt. Col. Richard Muegge, commander of the squadron, based at nearby Cherry Point, called the suggestion that such a club existed "a vicious rumor and lie" during testimony and said the rumor had originated from questions by the investigators themselves.
Muegge also denied that the aviators in his squadron practiced "flat-hatting" -- military slang for showing off by flying fast and low -- but indicated that such behavior might account for the gondola accident.
"I do have strong concern about the conduct of this flight," Muegge said. "Except for this one flight, I'd have no concern" about flat-hatting.
The prosecution today played a tape of a telephone conversation between Ashby and an Air Force supervisor, made shortly after the pilot successfully landed the seriously damaged jet back at Aviano. The pilot sounded shaken, but not panicked, during the brief conversation. "We think we hit a, gosh, a tower cable . . . that went to a gondola," Ashby reported.
The president of an Italian victims group appeared outside the hearing today with an attorney, complaining of a pattern of low-altitude flights by hundreds of military jets extending to at least 1990. The group wants to submit documents supporting its claim, including a local government report from 1995 claiming that in May that year, a NATO military jet struck and severed a high-tension electrical cable near Vallarsa, Italy.
"This was a situation going on for many years," said Werner Pichler, president of the group and a lifelong resident of Cavalese. "Everybody knew about these low flights." The documents were given to the hearing officer, Lt. Col. Ronald Rodgers, but it is unclear if they will be introduced into evidence.
The government today also presented evidence recovered by the Marine prosecution team during a recent two-week investigative trip to Italy. The evidence had been held under seal by Italian authorities. The U.S. officials were given custody of a video camera and tape found after the accident in the front cockpit of the Prowler. The tape appeared to have been re-recorded inside the camera with a cap on the lens, according to Fallon.
The tape is being analyzed by technicians to determine whether any erased images can be recovered, showing, for example, if the crew was filming scenery during flight.
Other items also were turned over to the U.S. team, including the flattened cable car, which was loaded onto a C-130 and flown to North Carolina, where it now sits at the nearby New River Marine Corps Air Station. The cable car is not expected to be introduced into evidence until a court-martial, officials said.
Prosecutors also traveled across Europe to meet the families of 17 of the 20 victims, who came from Italy, Germany, Austria, Poland and the Netherlands. The prosecution offered family members the opportunity to attend and testify at a court-martial should one be convened.
The crew has retained several well-known civilian lawyers to handle their cases. Spinner represented former Air Force 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn during her celebrated adultery case. Schweitzer is being represented by Dave Beck, a retired Marine Corps judge who prosecuted Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, a Marine guard at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, for espionage.
Raney is being represented by Charles W. Gittins, who defended former Army Sgt. Major Gene C. McKinney during his trial for sexual offenses earlier this year. CAPTION: Marine Capt. Richard Ashby, above, and Capt. Joseph Schweitzer arrive for hearing on whether they should be court-martialed for accident that killed 20 people in Italy.