Marine Regrets Destruction of Tape
Mar. 30, 1999
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) _ The navigator of the Marine jet that cut a ski lift cable in the Italian Alps said it was ``stupid'' to destroy the videotape that captured part of the flight that led to 20 deaths last year.
``What I did was wrong,'' said Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, who faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty Monday to charges of obstruction and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
``I'm here today to take responsibility for my actions,'' he said.
Schweitzer, 31, of Westbury, N.Y., said he swapped the videotape he shot for a blank one after the EA-6B Prowler jet landed at the NATO base in Aviano, Italy.
He explained that he took the tape because he didn't want it to become an issue in what he thought would be a probe of the tragedy by Italian authorities. At the time, there was no Marine Corps criminal probe.
``I said, `Let's take the tape,''' to pilot Capt. Richard Ashby, Schweitzer said. ``It was a stupid thing to do and I regret that. It was a rash decision.''
Attorneys arrived in court today to begin selecting a sentencing jury. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison but lawyers have not said what sentencing limits were agreed to in Schweitzer's plea bargain.
Schweitzer said that at one point during the flight he had pointed the camera at himself and smiled. Ashby had warned him that the Italian media and authorities would ``eat you alive'' if they saw the tape.
``The video had nothing to do with the mishap,'' Schweitzer said. ``It wasn't on in the valley. I didn't want it to be an issue.''
Two days later, Schweitzer said he tossed the original tape into a fire.
He said he had stopped taping about 10 minutes before the jet streaked toward the Cavalese valley at 620 mph in February 1998.
The wing of the Prowler cut the ski gondola cable when the jet dropped to 370 feet above the valley floor. Three Italians, two Poles, seven Germans, five Belgians, two Austrians and one Dutch passenger died.
``Joe is the type of guy who wants to stand up and take responsibility,'' said Dave Beck, Schweitzer's attorney. ``There were some bad mistakes made after the accident and they made bad decisions.''
Ashby, 32, of Mission Viejo, Calif., was acquitted by a military jury at Camp Lejeune of manslaughter and other charges on March 4, outraging Italian authorities and straining relations with the United States.
``This is a tragedy that becomes more confusing as the evidence is destroyed,'' said John Arthur Eaves Sr., an attorney representing the families of the German victims in the accident.
Three relatives of victims of the accident will be allowed to testify that the missing tape leaves a doubt about why their loved ones died. Other evidence includes affidavits from Schweitzer's squadron mates who are back at Aviano flying missions over Yugoslavia.
``I appreciate Schweitzer's honesty,'' said Lorenzo Dellai, president of the Italian province of Trento, the region where the accident occurred. ``It is a contribution to clearness, which has always been lacking in this sad story.''
Ashbyfaces trial on the same obstruction charges next month.