Associated Retired Aviation Professionals


Federal judge examines Flight 800

Posted: April 23, 2004
1:00 a.m. Eastern


Almost eight years after TWA Flight 800 was blasted out of the sky, a federal judge permitted discovery to go forward in a civil case James and Elizabeth Sanders have brought against the federal government and eight named defendants.

A retired cop turned journalist, Sanders alleged that the defendants – namely certain federal officials involved in the Flight 800 investigation – perverted the system, using ordinary criminal process for the improper purpose of quelling the free speech of him and his wife, Elizabeth, the plaintiffs in the case.

"Not only is the chilling of free speech of citizens not what the criminal process is designed to do," wrote federal district judge Joanna Seybert, "it is inimical to our system of laws and justice." In so declaring, Judge Seybert has, perhaps for the first time in American history, opened a federal civil court to a case that the government and its media accomplices have dismissed as a conspiracy theory.

With retired United Airlines pilot Ray Lahr advancing his case against the National Transportation Safety Board and the CIA through the Los Angeles District Court, it is possible – although by no means certain – the federal courts may finally address the great untold story of our time.

In the way of background, Sanders had begun investigating the possibility that a criminal act brought down TWA Flight 800 just months after the act took place in 1996. He developed high-level sources within the investigation, who gave Sanders documents that, to this day, have not been declassified.

One NTSB document given to Sanders is particularly critical. The document revealed that Federal Aviation Administration controllers had, in fact, tracked an object that approached and intersected with TWA 800 just as it exploded. According to the document, FAA technicians picked up the phone and immediately called the "White House." This FAA message went directly to terrorism czar Richard Clarke, who shortly thereafter convened a meeting in the White House situation room.

As we reported last week, Clarke deceives the readers of his book "Against All Enemies about the provocation behind this meeting. In his retelling, the FAA "was at a total loss" for why the plane disappeared from its radar screens. To dismiss talk of terrorism, Clarke positions the plane's last altitude at 17,000 feet, more than 3,200 feet above the last FAA reading.

Other documents leaked to Sanders showed a pattern of destruction originating on the extreme right side of the 747. The New York Times' FBI sources identified row 23, extreme right side, as the point at which an explosive event was first seen inside the passenger cabin. In his book, Clarke ignores the doubly confirmed PETN residue found in this section and claims that row 23 is where the center wing tank accidentally exploded, a fact he boasts of having discovered before the NTSB or the FBI. Needless to say, Sanders is eager to depose Mr. Clarke.

Another source told Sanders the FBI had classified portions of the Navy underwater debris field video and would not let any NTSB investigator view the classified video. Sanders would soon learn the debris field was being altered to fit the exploding-fuel-tank hypothesis that the NTSB and FBI had been ordered to create. The FBI was also making sure the independent-minded NTSB investigators saw no parts that did not belong to TWA Flight 800.

In the course of his investigation, Sanders showed a key source a damage pattern across rows 17-18-19, heading toward the left side of the passenger cabin. When the source observed the pattern, he remarked that a reddish-orange residue was on the seatbacks of those rows, and only those rows. This discovery would lead to the arrest of the source ... and both James and Elizabeth Sanders.

The source offered to scrape off red residue samples and give those to Sanders to have tested in a commercial lab. When the Riverside Press-Enterprise published the results of that test along with other revelations on Monday, March 10, 1997, all hell broke loose.

The federal conspirators had a serious problem. The retired cop that had targeted them obviously had sources within their investigation. Those sources were still at work. For all the conspirators knew, someone sitting in on their meetings was a whistleblower. To stop the journalistic investigation into their now transparent lawlessness, they unleashed the power of the Justice Department.

After the story broke, U.S. Attorney Valerie Caproni met with Sanders and his attorney and told them that Sanders would be indicted and prosecuted if he did not reveal who his sources were. Sanders refused to cooperate. Caproni then pulled out her trump card. She promised to indict Sanders' wife, Elizabeth Sanders, if Sanders did not cease his investigation and reveal his sources.

When Sanders again refused to cooperate, the FBI forced Elizabeth into a soul-withering exile and out of TWA, which fired Elizabeth. On Dec. 5, 1997, the FBI obtained arrest warrants for both Sanders for conspiring with an NTSB source to have residue tested. The courts prohibited them from conducting a First Amendment defense outlining the criminal acts of those James Sanders was investigating, and both were convicted.

But instead of the possible 10-year imprisonment, the judge sentenced Liz to one-year probation and 25 hours community service. James was sentenced to three years probation and 50 hours community service.

Now, the Sanders civil action comes before that same judge, Joanna Seybert.

In her written memorandum of March 31, 2004, Seybert acknowledges that the essence of the Sanders' complaint is the federal government prosecuted the Sanders to discourage them from disseminating views on the destruction of TWA Flight 800 "at variance with the government's official views on that subject as well as to publicly discredit [Sanders'] views." This, they allegedly did "in violation of their First Amendment rights."

"In this case," wrote Seybert, "the allegations contained in the Amended Complaint are sufficient to state a claim for abuse of process." The Sanders, she added, "have satisfied their burden to withstand this motion [to dismiss] and are entitled to conduct discovery relating to this claim."

Let the discovery begin.


 © 2001, 2002, 2003 & 2004

  Robert E. Donaldson.  All rights reserved