April 16, 1999
A Day In Court
Government Witnesses Seem
Fearful During Sanders/Flight 800 Trial
Two things struck this reporter most during
Day Four of the trial of James and Elizabeth
Sanders: the very evident fear exhibited by
government witnesses Terrell Stacey and Lee
Taylor, and the commonplace but still eerie
fact that here in this small courtroom,
attended by only a handful of people and a
paucity of the press, the fate of two
individuals was to be decided.
* * *
T.W.A. Captain Terrell Stacey seemed like a
man from a story by Kafka as he took the
stand Thursday, April 8, in federal court in
Uniondale. He was the government's star
witness in the case against James and
Elizabeth Sanders. Stacey was beckoned into
the courtroom by F.B.I. agent James G.
Kinsley, a large man who sat next to the
government attorney and who seemed to
receive most of the goings on of the trial with
a disapproving face -- in contrast with the
Sanders, who faced the wrath of the law, but
who more than once allowed themselves to
laugh, finding some dark humor in the
The couple is charged with prompting Captain
Stacey to take a portion of seat fabric from
the reconstruction of Flight 800 in the
Calverton Hangar in November, 1996.
Captain Stacey was a legitimate party to the
investigation and, as he related to Bruce
Maffeo, attorney for James Sanders (Jeremy
Gutman represented Elizabeth Sanders), the
months following the tragedy of Flight 800
were days of stress and pressure.
Stacey had pled guilty to a misdemeanor in
regards to passing on the fabric for outside
analysis to Jim Sanders. In his statement to
the F.B.I., Stacey stressed how frustrated he
had become during the months of the
investigation, in particular with the lack of
sharing of information between different
agencies. The investigation had also cost him
increased time away from his family. And
there was the sad fact that as a T.W.A.
employee, he had personally known the 52
crew members who had died on Flight 800.
Stacey had first taken the stand the day
before and then was again on the stand
through most of Thursday morning. He
seemed like a man who had accepted defeat.
The government's lawyer, David B. Pitofsky,
a young man who handled his duties with a
precision that was further complemented with
numerous objections that were usually
sustained, asked Stacey to refine testimony he
had made on the previous day. Stacey had
said he had taken the seat fabric on his "own
volition," a statement that would seem to let
the Sanders off the hook.
Pitofsky: "What does your own volition mean
Stacey: "It means I was accepting
responsibility for my own actions."
Pitofsky: "Did you receive influence in this
Stacey: "Yes.... From James and Elizabeth
As Stacey said this, he looked resignedly at
Pitofsky; he did not glance to his left at the
couple he had named.
Pitofsky: "Did you believe you were breaking
Pitofsky: "Do you believe you were breaking
the law today?"
The defense played a tape recorded
conversation between Sanders and Stacey.
The recording had been made by Sanders.
Stacey's voice was low and subdued.
Sanders, who has, in fact, a made-for-radio
voice, was clear. At no time did he
specifically say that Stacey should bring him
the seat fabric but that it would be great to
have and that the two would have "to figure
out how to do a handoff."
On his cross examination of Stacey, defense
attorney Maffeo asked the pilot -- who had
flown that very plane just the day before;
three times that week -- if he had reviewed
his cooperation agreement with the
government at the time he had signed it? The
answer was, obviously, "Yes."
Stacey has pled guilty -- that was in
December, 1997 -- but has not yet been
sentenced. Maffeo brought out, and Stacey
confirmed, that his sentencing is contingent on
"testifying truthfully." Maffeo then asked was
it not true that the party that would determine
the "truthfulness" of that testimony would be
the U.S. Justice Department, in other words,
the very agency that had drawn the
agreement with Stacey.
Maffeo's implication was plain. The attorney
leaned toward Stacey and asked, "Were you
pressured by Jim or Liz Sanders to take the
Faintly, like a man who had accepted he was
doomed whichever way he turned, Stacey
This was when he spoke of his frustration
with the investigation, the stress of being
away from his family and his sadness over
the death of those with whom he had worked.
"I thought this would be a means of obtaining
more information...." he said.
Maffeo continued: Was it not true that he,
Captain Stacey, had been suspended for three
months, since February, 1998 from T.W.A.?
When Stacey replied that was true, Maffeo
asked him how long he had worked with
Stacey said, "For 33 years." He added that in
four years he must retire.
Maffeo asked were it not true that if he,
Stacey, were suspended or fired, it would be
at "significant financial cost to you and your
family." In other words, not just his daily
employment would be affected, but a pension
due him after more than three decades.
It was poignant, it was pitiful. A few
moments later the judge called the lawyers to
the bench to confer after an objection had
been raised. She flicked on the machine that
creates a white noise so this conversation
cannot be heard by the jury or spectators.
Stacey looked ahead and drew slowly from a
glass of water.
Pitofsky had his chance on redirect. Stacey
was again brought to the agreement he has
signed with the government. "Whose guilt or
innocence was at issue that day?"
Pitofsky asked Stacey if he accepted his
"responsibility in this case?"
Soon the lawyers were again called to the
bench to confer amidst the scrambling white
noise. Again Stacey looked ahead, seeming to
see no one. That's when the thought came
that he looked like nothing so much as a
character from Kafka, who had become the
vessel of guilt in an inexplicable, absurd
* * *
Lee Taylor was the second government
witness who prompted associations of being
caught in a trap. She told the court she had
worked for T.W.A. for the past 27 years and
is currently (for the last year and a half) an
Operations Supervisor at the airline.
Pitofsky questioned Taylor, a slight, dark
haired woman with a voice so low one often
had to strain to hear it. Taylor had been a
close friend, in fact, to Elizabeth Sanders, who
was a Flight Attendant Supervisor at T.W.A.
The two women worked at T.W.A.
headquarters in St. Louis. "I saw her daily,"
said Lee Taylor. When Liz wasn't home with
Jim in Williambsburg, Virginia, which was the
couple's residence, both women shared
quarters at T.W.A. in St. Louis. Taylor's
residence was Kansas City, Missouri.
She said she had first met James Sanders in
April, 1996 and, through Liz Sanders, had
become friends with her husband as well. She
mentioned that when she needed to be taken
to the hospital it was Jim Sanders who had
taken her and she reiterated later in her
testimony that the Sanders had been very
good friends to her.
And yet she had signed an agreement with
the government to testify at this trial and
possibly say things that would help convict
James and Elizabeth Sanders of the "theft" of
the seat fabric from the Calverton Hangar.
When Sanders had the fabric analyzed in
January, 1997 and the results were consistent
with missile fuel, an article on March 10, 1997
by David Hendrix of the Riverside
Press-Enterprise in California, had featured
Sanders' findings. Sometime later that month,
just before the publication of Sanders' book,
The Downing of T.W.A. Flight 800, the
Sanders, to avoid the F. B.I. who wanted to
question them, stayed with Lee Taylor at her
apartment in Kansas City. After the Sanders
left the F.B.I. eventually questioned Taylor
(she was mentioned in the book's
acknowledgments). Fearful that she "knew
too much," though she was not being charged
with any crime, she signed an immunity
agreement with the government that she
would testify at the Sanders' trial. She also
turned over to the F.B.I. a computer that the
Sanders had left behind when they had moved
from her place. The F.B.I. retrieved files
from the computer -- illegally: the court has
disallowed this evidence from the trial.
She was asked if she knew the T.W.A.
personnel who had died on Flight 800. "I
knew everyone." It was a time of funerals,
she said. "It seemed like the funerals would
never stop." She also said she had served on
that very flight herself many times.
Taylor said that she did not specifically know
Captain Stacey, "though I may have flown
with him." It would be hard to believe she
hadn't met him, she added.
In August, 1996, Taylor had learned from
Elizabeth Sanders that her husband was
investigating Flight 800; later that year she
learned about Stacey, who would be referred
to as "Hangar Man" in Sanders' book.
When Pitofsky asked Taylor, "What was your
understanding why Jim Sanders was at your
apartment?" she said: "He was hiding out
[from the F.B.I.]."
Pitofsky: "What was the demeanor of Liz
Sanders at this time?"
Taylor replied that she "was nervous... the
F.B.I. was calling the office...."
Defense attorney Jeremy Gutman asked
Taylor, "Did you believe you did anything
wrong or criminal?"
But Lee Taylor had feared prosecution in
knowing about Sanders' investigations and the
actions of Captain Stacey. Gutman asked
Taylor if she had felt in jeopardy? "Yes."
Consequently she had met with the F.B.I. in
New York three times, each meeting lasting
three hours and had eventually given the
Bureau Sanders' computer.
When Gutman asked her if what the Sanders
had done and her own "involvement" had
been wrong, she did not give a straight
answer. "I felt it was very unfortunate that I
was placed in the position I was in."
Gutman: "You felt you could face federal
"Yes." She added: "It was never definitely
stated to me, but it was a fear."
Later she was asked, "Did you fear you
would be the subject of hostility of the F.B.I.
or any other government agency for providing
James Sanders help in that book?"
She said, "Initially, I feared everything."
Fear was something Lee Taylor exuded from
the witness stand. She had the posture of a
victim. One looked for the interplay between
her and agent Kinsley: his expression seemed
unchanging; she, like Stacey, tried to look
straight ahead. Again, as with Stacey, she
never seemed so much defeated as when the
lawyers conferred at the bench and she
perhaps thought all too much about the
"friends" she was possibly betraying.
Once Taylor left the court to call her attorney
to ask the advisability of responding to a line
of questioning. When she returned, Agent
Kinsley opened the door for her. She directed
a strained, trained smile at him; but in another
two steps her face fell.
Taylor had not been able to reach her lawyer,
but she had decided to answer whatever was
asked: as with Stacey, she appeared resigned
to her fate and just wanted to get it over with,
Taylor testified that the lawyer she had
consulted at the time when the F.B.I. had first
tried to question her, had advised her on a
"better safe than sorry" course.
Gutman: "Did you believe at that time you had
committed any crime?"
Taylor: "I didn't know."
And again, as with Captain Stacey, the
government would only keep its promise in
the agreement Taylor had made with it, if her
testimony were "truthful."
There were other witnesses. A book
publisher who had discussed Sanders' book
during a long dinner in Washington, D.C -- but
had not become Sanders' publisher; the
bookkeeper at West Coast Analytical
Services Inc., who had done the analysis on
the fabric Sanders had brought to them from
Flight 800. The afternoon closed with the
testimony of F.B.I. agent Kinsley. James
Sanders had previously described, with
understandable distaste, how Kinsley had
ordered Sanders and his wife handcuffed,
paraded them in front of the press, when the
Sanders had turned themselves in December,
1997. Kinsley, a large man with a stern face,
from the F.B.I.'s white collar crime unit, had
more the demeanor and aspect of a man who
fielded the violence of dangerous criminals.
On the stand he described how the F.B.I.
slowly and methodically gathered phone,
travel and credit card records of the Sanders.
The F.B.I., before charging Sanders, had
asked him the identity of "Hangar Man."
Sanders had refused. The F.B.I. pinned
Stacey through phone logs.
Kinsley, the agent in charge of the case
against the Sanders, was asked when he was
in fact put on the case. "March 10, 1997," he
replied. In other words, as soon as the article
in the Press-Enterprise had come out. That
date is also when President Clinton, in an
executive order, removed -- for reasons of
national security -- federal whistleblower
protection from the Navy S.E.A.L.s who
participated in the recovery of Flight 800. And
it was on or about that day that the F.B.I.
raided the home of retired pilot Richard
Russell to gain possession of radar tape he
had been given from someone on the inside of
The trial of James and Elizabeth Sanders
continues in Uniondale. The determination
with which the government has pursued the
couple and the sad spectacle of the witnesses
that have been "given" deals to testify, would
make most observers feel there is a large
game here, involving more than the "theft" of
the residue of an airline seat.
* * * As we went to press on Tuesday, April
13, Elizabeth and James Sanders were found
guilty after the jury had deliberated less than
an hour. The nature of the final summations
the day before had seemed to give the
Sanders more than an even chance of being
acquitted and many observers who had
attended all or parts of the trial were taken
aback at the verdict. In next week's article
the close of the trial and the aftermath of the
verdict will be discussed. James and Elizabeth
Sanders will be appealing the verdict. The
couple are to be sentenced on July 9, 1999,
eight days short of three years after the
tragedy of Flight 800, on July 17, 1996.