"Newsday" on Sanders
Couple Convicted in TWA Theft / Jury makes quick work of the verdict
By Robert E. Kessler. STAFF WRITER
A Virginia couple, who bolstered a widely held theory that a missile
shot down TWA Flight 800 three years ago, killing the 230 people aboard,
were rapidly convicted in federal court yesterday of conspiring to steal
a piece of the plane's wreckage and aiding and abetting in the theft of
James and Elizabeth Sanders obtained a small piece of the wreckage
containing a red residue, and James Sanders, in newspaper articles and a
book he wrote, "The Downing of TWA Flight 800," said laboratory analysis
showed it was similar to missile fuel.
The missile theory was not an issue at the trial, and government
investigators have scoffed at the claim, saying the residue was a glue
used to hold the plane's seat together and that the jet most likely was
downed by an as-yet-to-be-determined mechanical malfunction.
The Sanderses said in their defense that they had committed no crime
because they were acting, in effect, as concerned citizens who were
seeking to unmask a government cover-up.
But the jury apparently gave the shortest shrift to that defense,
deliberating for the unusually brief period of 45 minutes. Although the
jury was out for about two hours, most of that time was spent having
lunch, according to assistant U.S. Attorney David Pitofsky, who
prosecuted the case.
Jurors, who were escorted out of U.S. District Court in Uniondale by
court officers, declined to comment, except for one who said they had
agreed they would not discuss the verdict.
"This is a simple case of theft of evidence, and nobody would have
any problem with the prosecution if it involved bank robbery, narcotics
or organized crime," said U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter.
Elizabeth Sanders, a flight attendant trainer for TWA, appeared
stunned after the verdict, and said, "I'm shocked." She had been accused
of persuading a senior TWA captain, who was assisting federal
investigators probing the crash, to filch the red residue from a hangar
Sanders claimed, however, that Capt. Terrell Stacey was so upset by
what he saw as flaws in the federal investigation that he volunteered to
give them the red residue. In a plea bargain with the government, Stacey
became the chief witness against the Sanderses.
The usually jovial James Sanders, the author of three books and a
former California police officer, was subdued and said he still believed
that the government covered up the fact that a missile destroyed the
plane. Sanders said that he had always been prepared to go to jail as
part of his search for the truth but that he was upset that the
government had indicted and now convicted his wife.
"Just think if it were you or your wife, the next time you're
getting information," Sanders said.
Bruce Maffeo, James Sanders' attorney, and Jeremy Gutman, Elizabeth
Sanders' attorney, said the couple planned an appeal on numerous
grounds. Maffeo said one of the grounds would involve First Amendment
Although James Sanders had given many interviews saying he was a
journalist protected by a reporter's privilege in looking into the
crash, the defense did not bring up First Amendment issues during the
trial, apparently feeling that there is no clear basis for a reportorial
privilege in federal law. The defense centered around accusations that
pilot Stacey fabricated much of his testimony and that the Sanderses did
not believe they were committing a crime.
Although the Sanderses theoretically face up to 10 years in prison
for conviction on the conspiracy and aiding and abetting charges,
federal sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of 0 to 6 months.
The Sanderses were prosecuted under a recently enacted law barring the
theft of wreckage from a plane crash.
Copyright 1999, Newsday Inc.