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No Sign of Alcohol in Denver Crash

October 15, 1997

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. (AP) _ John Denver was flying without a valid pilot’s license after two drunken driving arrests, a federal aviation official said, though investigators found no signs he had been drinking before his fatal crash.

After divers pulled the engine and other wreckage from 40 feet of water on Tuesday, top transportation officials said the folk-pop singer’s plane appeared to be sound before the accident.

The Federal Aviation Administration pulled Denver’s medical certificate _ which is required to fly with a pilot’s license _ on June 13, 1996, said National Transportation Safety Board spokesman George Petterson. A federal regulator in Washington who requested anonymity cited earlier drunken driving charges.

Sheriff Norman Hicks emphasized that the evidence so far indicates Denver was sober when he took off in his privately built Long EZ aircraft Sunday and crashed into Monterey Bay. His body was recovered soon afterward.

``I checked with people that he played golf with from early morning through the entire day and no one saw him drinking so much as one beer,″ Hicks said. ``He was very conscientious about that, according to the people we talked to. He was concerned about following the rules of drinking and flying.″

The 53-year-old singer, with 1970s hits including ``Rocky Mountain High″ and ``Sunshine On My Shoulders,″ had two drunken driving arrests in Colorado. He pleaded guilty in a 1993 case and was scheduled for a January trial for an accident in 1994, when he smashed his Porsche into a cluster of trees.

Denver’s attorney, Walter Gerash, said that as far as he knows Denver had a valid pilot’s license at the time of the crash.

Investigators cautioned that the singer could have applied for reinstatement shortly before the crash. But FAA computer records reviewed by The Associated Press showed Denver had not been listed as having a valid pilot’s license since September 1996.

``His medical certificate was denied. He didn’t have a valid license,″ NTSB investigator Matt Furman said.

Investigators have recovered and assembled 90 percent of the plane.

``There’s no sign of catastrophic failure,″ Petterson said after an initial review. Investigators expected to finish their work today but a final report would take months, he said.

The privately built plane was checked twice by mechanics last week and repainted before it was delivered Saturday to the singer, who bought it for $56,000 from Van Snow, a Solvang veterinarian.

``I would have no more doubts about flying that plane today than I did before the accident,″ Snow said Tuesday. Denver was the 10-year-old plane’s fourth owner.

Hicks said authorities found an old hand gun and four bullets in the car Denver parked at the airport, but did not yet know if he had a permit to carry the weapon.

The Long EZ’s designer, Burt Rutan, sent an identical plane on Tuesday to help investigators reconstruct Denver’s aircraft.

He said he couldn’t explain why Denver’s plane suddenly plunged, but had some theories.

``There was something very bad happened during that flight,″ Rutan told NBC News. ``He may have hit a pelican, a large bird.″

Just onshore from the crash site, about 30 fans met on the sand at sunset Tuesday for an impromptu memorial service. They held hands around a seaweed circle containing a cross made of rocks and sang ``Amazing Grace″ and some of Denver’s songs.

In his adopted hometown of Aspen, Colo., more than 200 friends and fans scattered flower petals and sang his songs at a sundown memorial Monday, with Ajax Mountain looming behind.

``He was just like Colorado,″ said Connie Vaughn of Denver, who made the 175-mile trip to pay her respects. ``He expressed everything that was here _ the skies, the mountains, the eagles, the people.″

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