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Journalist or criminal?
Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 08/12/1998 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled
James Sanders says the only thing he’s guilty of is a conspiracy to commit
Sanders, a former police officer, is the author of the book “The Downing of
TWA Flight 800.” He and his wife Elizabeth, who was a TWA flight attendant
for 12 years before her recent retirement, were arrested last December on
charges that they conspired to steal and hide part of the wreckage of TWA
Flight 800 — specifically, two small pieces of seat fabric coated with a
red residue. If convicted, they face up to ten years in prison.
In connection with the Sanders case, the government appears to have issued
misleading information, violated its own rules for dealing with the press,
and engaged in an effort to discredit a journalist’s theory by prosecuting
Sanders, who believes the red residue may be evidence of a missile,
received the seat material from Terrell Stacey, a senior TWA pilot. Stacey
was the second-ranking TWA official assisting investigators in the
reconstruction of the aircraft.
The TWA aircraft, a Boeing 747, was bound for Paris from New York on July
17, 1996 when it
exploded and fell into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island.
All 230 persons on board
were killed. It was the second-deadliest civilian air disaster in U.S.
history. Government officials initially blamed the explosion on
terrorists, but now say that it was caused by a spark that ignited fumes in
a nearly empty fuel tank. Officials have been unable to determine the
source for the spark.
It is a federal crime to remove property from the site of an aviation
accident investigation. Even a small piece of debris may be critical to a
But, Sanders said, the issue in his case is: “Is it, or is it not, legal
for a journalist seeking to expose government wrongdoing, to in any manner
suggest to a whistleblower that you want something — in others words, to
ask for it?”
Stacey, who actually took the material, plea-bargained with the government.
He pled guilty to a misdemeanor and, according to Elizabeth Sanders, is
still working for TWA.
She said that she contacted Stacey, who had been her boss’s boss, on behalf
of her husband.
“I knew that he [Stacey] was working on the investigation, so I called him
and asked if he would be willing to talk to my husband,” she told
WorldNetDaily. “He said he would have to think about it. Maybe two weeks
later, Jim called him and they started the relationship between them.”
Aside from helping the two men make contact, she said, “I had no part in
the investigation whatsoever.”
Mrs. Sanders said that she was indicted along with her husband because
“They decided a good way to get to Jim is to go through me.”
James Sanders and Terrell Stacey “established a relationship over a couple
of months,” Sanders told WorldNetDaily, “and he had given me the November
13  computer printout of all debris that the FBI allowed to be logged
into the computer as of that day. I took it and entered it into my
computer to come up with a debris field,” to determine where and when
various pieces fell from the sky. It appeared, he said, that the seats in
row 17, 18, and 19 were the first to “come out of the plane.”
“I went out for lunch at Terry Stacey’s place in New Jersey on November 24
. At that time I knew nothing about the red residue, had never heard
of it. I got there and showed him where the trail was across the plane,
and he said, ‘My God, there’s reddish orange residue on the backs of seats
going across the plane, and I think there’s on those exact same rows.’ When
I go back there next time, I’ll go look and see if it’s those same rows.’”
Sanders said that neither he nor his wife “at any time ever had to ask
Terry for anything. He’s a top administrator. Liz was never involved in
any way other than she knew him.”
Stacey was suspicious about the conduct of the investigation, Sanders said,
because National Transportation Safety Board investigators were ordered not
to re-interview witnesses who had told the FBI that they saw what appeared
to be a missile hitting the plane. Besides, Sanders added, “Virtually
everyone who worked on the floor of the hangar [where the plane was being
reconstructed] believed that it was not mechanical failure” as the
Sanders ridiculed the government’s suggestion that he and his wife were
masterminds pushing a reluctant Terrell Stacey to steal the seat material.
“They allege that he was reluctant about it, that he wasn’t going to do it
at one point and we talked him into it. That is total nonsense. He was
enthusiastically on board. He felt it was an important thing that had to
In Stacey’s allocution — the confession accepted by the court when he
plea-bargained — Stacey said that, “when Mr. Sanders offered to me …
that he could help in the investigation through contacts and people he had
in labs, then I on my own volition took the two small pieces and gave them
to him to have them analyzed.”
The claim of James Sanders that his intentions were honorable seems to be
supported by the fact that he made no secret of what he was doing, other
than to attempt to protect the identity of his source. After he had the
material tested, he told a reporter for the *** Press-Enterprise about the
results of the tests. And he included the results in his book “The Downing
of TWA Flight 800.”
On the other hand, Sanders said, the government’s actions showed anything
but good faith.
A senior NTSB official, Bernard Loeb, told Congress, “One thing I can
state categorically is there is no such thing as a red residue trail in
that airplane.” This conflicts with an FBI agent’s affidavit in support of
the arrest warrant for the Sanders couple, which stated: “From Row 17 to
Row 28 of the seating area, there is a reddish residue on the metallic
frame and backs of the passenger seats …”
The March 10, 1997 newspaper article quoting Sanders — which prompted
the government’s investigation of his and his wife’s involvement in the
case — identified him as “author and investigative reporter James
Sanders.” Yet the Justice Department later claimed that it was unaware he
was a journalist when he was subpoenaed to testify and his telephone
records were subpoenaed. Indeed, one official told the New York Post that
the department had found no basis for believing that Sanders was acting as
This is important because Justice Department regulations (28 CFR 50.10),
designed to inhibit violations of the First Amendment, require special
handling for cases involving journalists. For example, “Negotiations with
the media shall be pursued in all cases in which a subpoena to a member of
the media is contemplated,” and, in cases such as this one, “No subpoena
may be issued to any member of the news media … without the express
authorization of the Attorney General.” Those procedures were not followed
in this case.
When the Sanders couple was arrested, an FBI press release stating that
Sanders had “misrepresented” the results of the tests on the red residue
“in media reports for which he was a source.” Sanders said he always
described the results as “consistent with,” rather than proof of, a
missile. The government said that tests by a NASA scientist, Charles
Bassett, disproved the missile theory, but Bassett said in a sworn
affidavit that his test results did not prove either the government’s
theory (that the residue is glue) or the missile theory.
The FBI’s James Kallstrom, who headed the crash investigation, said in a
press release: “These defendants are charged with not only committing a
serious crime, they have also increased the pain already inflicted on the
victims’ families.” That statement raises a red flag because protecting
innocent people from “pain” is a common justification for the violation of
First Amendment rights.
After they surrendered to authorities, Mr. and Mrs. Sanders were paraded
in handcuffs past reporters and photographers as if to make an example of
The NBC News report on the arrests, by Robert Hager, described a “plot,”
“an alleged scheme to promote the idea that the plane had been shot down by
a missile.” Hager concluded: “Tonight, the FBI says … still more may
have been involved in what it calls a plot to rewrite the history of TWA
800.” Assuming that Hager reported the FBI’s position accurately, his
story supports Sanders’s contention that the bureau was concerned mostly
with discrediting the missile theory, rather than with protecting the
investigation’s virtual crime scene.
Regarding Bassett’s affidavit, NTSB managing director Peter Goelz told
the Riverside, California Press-Enterprise: “We’ll review the document.
I’m not sure if we will have anything to say about it. Sanders is so
thoroughly discredited, we don’t feel we need to continue the dialogue.”
As Sanders pointed out, he was indeed “thoroughly discredited” — by being
One might assume that organizations charged with defending the First
Amendment would be involved in this case. But he and his wife have heard
“nothing, nada, zip” from those groups, Sanders said. Indeed, most of the
major media have made him out to be a con man — though it seems clear
that, whether he is right or wrong about the Flight 800 case, he is sincere
in his beliefs.
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