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How government stopped probers
Posted By David M. Bresnahan On 04/16/1999 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled
This is part one of a two-part series. Part one describes efforts by the federal government to stop independent investigators from exposing evidence found in the wreckage of the TWA Flight 800 crash. Part two will present evidence that the government is hiding something.
Journalist James Sanders, 53, and his wife Elizabeth, 52, aggressively investigated the crash of TWA Flight 800 and presented a theory of government cover-up in a book, news articles and in interviews.
One expert crash investigator believes the U.S. government is using them as an example to keep other members of the press in line.
The Clinton administration has become expert at controlling the press through intimidation, says Navy Cmdr. William S. Donaldson. Other elected officials, military commanders, law enforcement, and bureaucratic department heads have all learned how well the tactic works, he says. Reporters will not risk being labeled as right-wing wackos. Many stories of government corruption go unreported, not because of lack of evidence but because of fear of the consequences, according to Donaldson.
Donaldson is an aviation mishap analyst and has been independently accumulating evidence in the crash of TWA Flight 800 in which 230 people died three years ago in the waters off Long Island. He was asked to serve as a consultant for Mr. and Mrs. Sanders in their defense against federal charges related to the tragic crash.
The two were convicted on Tuesday of conspiring to steal evidence from the wreckage of the controversial flight. Cmdr. Donaldson says the trial was rigged against them from the very beginning.
When federal officials began the court case they carefully structured it to prevent the Sanders defense team from gaining access to crash evidence through the discovery process. Once the trial began they also managed to get the judge to restrict what could be discussed and what could not.
“What the government did is structure this thing almost as if they were totally afraid of getting into any of the technical aspects,” explained Cmdr. Donaldson.
“The way this thing works, if they want to bring this thing down as narrow as they can, up to a point, the judge will allow that.” Which he said means the Sanders defense could not include any presentation on the technical evidence or their theory of how the plane was shot down with a missile. They also could not describe their evidence of a government coverup.
Why? If the prosecution did not mention the controversial subjects, neither could the defense. The trial was limited to theft of two small pieces of cloth from the plane. Sanders had the cloth tested and believes the results help prove a missile was involved in the crash.
“The whole idea is the Sanderses want to say this is nothing but government oppression of journalism. Which is exactly what it is,” Cmdr. Donaldson told WorldNetDaily. “But the government managed to say ‘no, this is about the theft of this piece of fabric, and we’re going to send him to jail for 10 years for that and we don’t want to hear anything else.’ It’s absurd,” he complained.
Judge Joanna Seybert of the U.S. District Court of Uniondale went along with the prosecution and ruled that testimony and evidence must be confined to the theft issue only.
“The judge admonished the jury at least a dozen times that the essential government position was not one that was maintaining what happened to the airplane. It had nothing to do with it, according to their position. This is a simple case of somebody breaking a federal law, we’re going to prove it, we’re going to prosecute that, and we’re going to keep it confined at that level,” Cmdr. Donaldson paraphrased the judge’s frequent instructions to the jury.
He said any time the defense mentioned anything about what happened to the aircraft, the prosecution objected. The judge always ruled to sustain that objection.
National media accounts of the trial, including news wire stories, commented that the Sanders defense team never brought up technical evidence, support for their missile theory, or First Amendment rights as an investigative journalist. The slant of the stories was that because these issues were not brought out in court the Sanders must have a weak case and cannot support their claims.
Cmdr. Donaldson pointed out that the press was being manipulated, and that they failed to report the true facts of the case just like they had ignored the astonishing evidence that he has compiled to support the missile theory.
“What the White House did was to go after a journalist who was publishing a story about the government,” said Cmdr. Donaldson. “Unfortunately the left-leaning media never really picked up on this. I’m in this long enough that I’m no longer naive about the slant some of these major news organizations take.”
The trouble all began for the Sanders when the Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, Calif. ran a front-page article featuring Mr. Sanders’ theory and that a missile brought down TWA Flight 800 on that fateful day in July 1996.
Sanders is the author of several books and is an independent freelance journalist. His book “The Downing of TWA Flight 800″ did not get him in trouble until he started getting press attention. Once the media were attracted to his evidence it was time to discredit him, according to Cmdr. Donaldson.
“The government was trying to prove a consciousness of guilt. The government was trying to make it seem that the Sanderses were on the run from the FBI. The case didn’t start until 10 March 1997 when that article hit in Riverside,” he explained. FBI agents admitted during the trial that the case began on the day the article came out.
“Someone up the chain of command probably realized Sanders was a problem, and ordered a full-blown no-holds-bared investigation when that Riverside press article came out. To me that’s caveman logic,” said Cmdr. Donaldson.
Mr. and Mrs. Sanders live in Williamsburg, Virginia. They were charged under a law approved by Congress in 1996, as a result of the Valujet crash in Florida. The law makes it a crime to remove, conceal, or withhold parts from the crash of a civilian aircraft. The purpose of the law was to stop souvenir hunters.
Mrs. Sanders worked for TWA and has since lost her job. She trained flight crews and knew many of the crew who died on Flight 800. Her crime? Two phone calls to a confidential source known as “Hangerman.”
Mr. Sanders said he had been given a piece of cloth from a seat on the plane by a source he called “Hangerman” in his book. He had the cloth tested and found that it had a red residue which was amazingly similar to the fuel used in a missile.
The federal government threatened Mr. Sanders with criminal charges if he did not divulge the true name of his source. When he refused, the FBI went to work.
TWA employee Lee Taylor let Mr. Sanders use her apartment to write his book on a computer. It didn’t take much intimidation to get her to sign an agreement for immunity and hand over the computer. The information in the computer and copies of phone records led straight to Hangerman — TWA pilot Terrell Stacey.
It was Mr. Stacey who flew the Boeing 747 from Paris to New York the night before the crash. He had been called in by TWA to assist in the investigation. A little more intimidation from the FBI and Mr. Stacey testified against the Sanderses in exchange for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge.
It was the testimony of Mr. Stacey which led to conviction. The jury was out for two hours, but sources say they only deliberated for 45 minutes and spent the rest of the time eating. Members of the jury were escorted out the back of the building and refused to speak to the press.
James Sanders’ attorney, Bruce Maffeo, told the press he will appeal the verdict. He warned that the federal charges against Sanders should send a “chilling message” to investigative reporters dealing with controversial stories of government corruption.
Mr. and Mrs. Sanders remain free on bail. They were forced to sell their home and use all their retirement plan to fight the charges against them.
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