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Sat, Mar 03, 2007

New Evidence Could Delay Murder Trial In OV-10 Crash

Defense Attorney Accuses CDF Of Sabotage

The strange circumstances surrounding the September 6, 2006 loss of a California Department of Forestry OV-10 Bronco spotter plane just became a lot stranger. The CDF announced to attorneys this week a bottle of alcohol and a gun were found amidst the wreckage of the crash, that killed two airborne firefighters.

This discovery was made within a week of the accident, but was not revealed until about six months later, according to the Porterville (CA) Recorder.

As Aero-News reported, CDF Battalion Chief Robert Paul Stone, 36, and DynCorp pilot George "Sandy" Willett, 52, were checking on a ground cover fire in the early morning hours of September 6, 2006. The plane went down around 10 am on a ridge between Frazier Mill campground and Hedrick Pond.

According to defense attorney John Jackson, investigators found a badly burned Glock pistol and a bottle of alcohol at the crash scene. The pistol belonged to Willett based on the serial number. Toxicology reports on Stone and Willett have not yet been released by the NTSB.

Prosecuting attorney Tim Ward said he received the information from investigators after the February 22 court hearing, and informed Jackson Wednesday.

"This information should have been turned over at the preliminary hearing," Jackson said. "They have a duty to turn over all potentially exculpatory evidence well before the eve of the trial."

Patrick Courtney, 29, had been charged with first degree murder and arson as prosecutors allege the deaths were caused by fighting the fires that were set illegally by Courtney. Judge James Hollman downgraded the charges February 22.

Courtney's trial is set for March 6. If convicted, he faces life in prison as a 'two strike' offender. He's accused of setting a series of fires along a drainage area that firefighters were working at the time of the crash.

"I think it's a fair statement, we have an ethical duty to turn over evidence that could potentially assist defense attorneys," Ward said. "What we don't know is if the reason it wasn't disclosed was because it was part of the NTSB investigation or it was a parallel investigation."

Information from the CDF Serious Accident Investigation team reports findings on serious accidents involving an agency employee, occurring on agency property and accidents occurring on an agency incident, CDF deputy communication director Michael Jarvis said. It is independent from the National Transportation Safety Board, and reports its findings when the NTSB issues its final reports.

"They have been trying to sabotage the case, and handing over evidence right before a jury trial is evidence of this fact," Jackson said of the CDF. "This could go to the heart of the cause of the crash."

According to Ward, CDF investigators disclosed the information to him while he was collecting information pertaining to an NTSB investigator scheduled to testify in the trial. Hollman ordered prosecutors to determine the cause of the crash before the case could advance.

Hollman warned the prosecutor "major sanctions" could be applied if the evidence was intentionally withheld. These sanctions could range from a reprimand to dismissal of all charges against Courtney.

According to NTSB's Preliminary Report, the two men perished when their Bronco slammed into 125 ft trees on the upslope of a box-like canyon. A preliminary report has been issued saying the pilot may have been flying too low, noting the CDF prohibits operations below 500 feet AGL unless specifically authorized.

Witnesses reported seeing the Bronco between 400 and 600 feet above the tree line as it flew north. One witness claims he heard revving engines just before impact.

CDF Battalion Chief Rick Moore told the Recorder the CDF has a fleet of 14 OV-10 aircraft and that maintenance is "ongoing." CDF has owned and operated the Bronco fleet for more than 25 years.

"I know for a fact that when you land, a mechanic... is asking how the flight was, if you had any problems," Moore said.

Jackson said he will seek to have second-degree murder and reckless fire-setting charges dropped.

(ANN thanks David Atkinson for his photograph of a Department of Forestry OV-10, shown above -- Ed)

FMI: www.fire.ca.gov, www.ntsb.gov

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