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Relatives of U.S. Pilot Killed in Nicaragua Press for Answers

April 21, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Saddled with debt, relatives of an American pilot killed in Nicaragua last year said Tuesday they have started legal action to determine who should pay bills he incurred while supplying the Contra rebels.

″The hurt of his death is just now beginning to be felt,″ said Wallace Blaine Sawyer Sr. in a telephone interview from his home in Magnolia, Ark.

His son, Wallace Blaine Sawyer Jr. died last Oct. 5 when a C-123K cargo plane loaded with guns, ammunition and other supplies for the Contras was shot down in southern Nicaragua.

After the crash, the pilot’s Thai-born widow, Kasanee, and her 4-year-old son were paid by his private life insurer, but they haven’t received any settlement from his unknown employer, the elder Sawyer said.

The family has yet to determine who hired his son to fly weapons to the Contras and who is responsible for the pilot’s credit card bill of more than $3,500 in motels and other expenses in Central America, Sawyer said.

″Those bills were incurred in his line of work and we don’t plan to pay them,″ he said.

Winslow Drummond, the Sawyers’ attorney in Little Rock, Ark., said he has ordered that court papers be prepared seeking to have a court administrator appointed in Columbia County to handle matters for the estate. Creditors would have 90 days to file claims.

Since the Sawyers have few assets, the estate procedure may be the first step in taking some legal action against the pilot’s employer, once it is determined, or against a third party, possibly the federal government, Drummond said.

Mrs. Sawyer, while not in desperate financial shape, does not work, her father-in-law said. Her husband left her with a mortgage of about $75,000 and car bills, he said.

The elder Sawyer, a retired oil worker, said he has no idea who paid his son, but he hopes that he will learn more about his namesake’s activities in Central America when a special congressional panel on the Iran-Contra affair begins public hearings on May 5.

He said an unknown person paid about $3,000 for his son’s funeral expenses. There is still $875 due.

Mary Rodgers at the Lewis Funeral Home in Magnolia said an unidentified man walked in and handed the firm an envelope full of cash on the day of Sawyer’s funeral.

Ruth Van Heuven, a State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. government paid the cost of transporting Sawyer’s body from Managua, Nicaragua, to his hometown in Arkansas. The government did not pay burial costs, she said.

Normally when an American dies abroad, the department will make arrangements to ship the body, but does not pay the cost. ″Unique circumstances called for an exception″ in the Sawyer case, she said, adding that the Sandinistas had dumped the pilots’ bodies outside the U.S. Embassy after the crash.

Two other men - American William J. Cooper and a Nicaraguan - died along with the 41-year-old Sawyer. Eugene Hasenfus, 45, of Marinette, Wis., was captured, but later released by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government which is battling the Contra fighters.

Although the CIA and other U.S. agencies denied any connection with the three Americans on board the flight at the time it was shot down, developments have since shown that the crash triggered high-level discussions at the White House.

The plane was apparently part of a private Contra aid network linked to Lt. Col. Oliver North, the former National Security Council aide fired for his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

″One of the Democracy Inc. aircraft apparently went down on a resupply mission to (Contra) forces in the north,″ Robert Earl, who shared an office with North, reported to then-National Security Adviser John Poindexter on Oct. 6, 1986. ″I will keep you advised of details as I get them,″ Earl wrote.

The note was contained in a report by the presidentially appointed Tower commission that investigated the Iran-Contra affair.

North coined the term Project Democracy, referred to as PRODEM in his computer messages, to refer to the private aid network that he helped run.

Sawyer, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, flew military cargo missions in Thailand until he resigned his commission in 1974.

William Kress, a spokesman for Southern Air Transport in Miami, said Sawyer worked for the company until he quit in 1985.

Documents found on the cargo plane that crashed appeared to tie the Americans to Southern Air, a one-time CIA-owned corporation. But Southern Air denied any connection to the plane.

Hasenfus said he was hired by the Pennsylvania-based Corporate Air Services, an affiliate of Southern Air. The head of Corporate Air, Edward T. de Garay, has been granted limited immunity from prosecution concerning testimony he might give the congressional Iran-Contra committees.

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