NY Times -
April 7, 1999
Couple Go on Trial in Theft of Piece of a Crashed Jet
By JOHN T. McQUISTON
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- When Trans World Airlines Flight 800 exploded and
crashed off Long Island in July 1996, killing all 230 people on board, some
investigators initially theorized that the jetliner might have been brought
down by a missile.
Among those who avidly pursued the theory -- to the annoyance of the
Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board
-- were a self-styled freelance investigative journalist, James Sanders, 53,
and his wife, Elizabeth, 52, who trained T.W.A. flight attendants and knew
many of the crew members who died aboard the flight.
The couple, who live in Virginia, were seated Tuesday at the defense table
in United States District Court here, charged by the Federal Government with
conspiracy and aiding in the theft of a small piece of seat fabric from the
Sanders, who ultimately wrote a book about the results of his own
investigation, has said the fabric contains a red dye that proves the plane
was hit by an errant Navy missile. The Government, which has dismissed the
missile theory, says the red substance is fabric glue.
The trial is just one of many reverberations from the crash, which
continues to hold a fascination for conspiracy theorists, half a dozen of
whom were in the courtroom today for the opening arguments.
In his argument, the prosecutor insisted that the trial had nothing to do
with the publication of Sanders's 1997 book, "The Downing of Flight 800."
"This is not a case about what caused the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 or
whether their actions obstructed justice," said the assistant United States
attorney, David B. Pitofsky. "It's simply about their involvement in a
conspiracy to remove parts of a plane involved in an accident."
In response, J. Bruce Maffeo, who is representing Sanders, told the jury
that the prosecution's case was "much ado about nothing," and represented a
continuing effort by the Government to harass the couple.
"Their only motive was to get at the truth," Maffeo said of the Sanderses,
who are each free on $50,000 bond and face up to 10 years in prison if
Jeremy Gutman, a lawyer representing Mrs. Sanders, told the jury that his
client had trained and worked with many of the crew members who died in the
crash and that her only intent was to help find the cause of the explosion.
"The Government would have you believe that trying to find out the truth is a
conspiracy," Gutman said.
Lawyers for both sides reminded the jury that no one had yet determined
what caused the explosion and crash of the jet 12 minutes after it took off
from Kennedy International Airport for Paris on the evening of July 17, 1996.
The Sanderses, who live in Williamsburg, Va., are charged under a
relatively new Federal law enacted by Congress in 1996 after a truck driver
in Florida was accused of taking a piece of wreckage of the May 1996 Valujet
crash as a souvenir.
The law makes it illegal to remove, conceal or withhold parts of a civil
aircraft involved in an accident.
Among those in the courtroom supporting the Sanderses today were several
people who said the Government was conspiring to suppress the truth about the
"The is a terrible miscarriage of justice," said William S. Donaldson 3d, a
retired Navy crash investigator and attack pilot, who said during a break in
the proceedings that he had proof the jetliner was brought down by a
Chinese-made, shoulder-launched rocket fired by a terrorist.
"I've sent a 130-page to the Congress last July, but the Government wants
to suppress the truth," he said. "The White House sent out over 1,000 agents
after the crash to prevent the public from finding out it was done by
Pitofsky told the jury that he planned to present 10 to 12 prosecution
witnesses, including a former T.W.A. pilot, Capt. Terrell Stacey, who he said
helped obtain the seat fabric from a Government hangar in Calverton, on Long
Island, where investigators had reassembled the wreckage of the plane.
He said that Captain Stacey had admitted to taking the plane part and
giving it to Sanders.
"He'll also tell you how he agreed to supply Jim Sanders with confidential
documents." Pitofsky told the jury. "Captain Stacey will take you step by
step and tell you about his and the defendants' participation in the scheme."
Pitofsky said Captain Stacey had agreed to testify in exchange for a lesser
charge, theft of Government property, a misdemeanor.
During today's proceedings, the Sanderses held hands, occasionally
exchanging reassuring smiles.
"We have done nothing wrong," Sanders said as they left the courthouse late
in the afternoon.
"This is nothing more than a case of Government oppression."