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Austria Judge Takes U.S. Lawyer’s Watch

January 13, 2003

SALZBURG, Austria (AP) _ A judge presiding over the trial of 16 suspects charged in an alpine cable-car fire that killed 155 people ordered an American lawyer to turn over his wristwatch and pocket change Monday for failing to pay a court fine.

Judge Manfred Seiss took the unusual step after New York-based lawyer Ed Fagan, who is representing American victims of the November 2000 disaster, showed up in court without having paid a $5,133 fine slapped on Fagan last year for practicing law in Austria without a license.

Fagan, who was declared in default of the fine last October, turned over two $20 bills, some coins and his wristwatch to the court bailiff as the trial resumed Monday after a more than two-month recess, the Austria Press Agency reported.

Fagan could not immediately be reached for comment.

The incident was the latest to rock the on-again, off-again trial, which began last June but has been plagued by disruptions, including a defendant who fainted in the courtroom and an expert witness for the prosecution who suffered a nervous breakdown under relentless cross-examination.

Seiss briefly reconvened the trial Monday to appoint Helmut Prader as the new court expert to oversee the prosecution’s case after Anton Muhr, the former expert, suffered the breakdown last year.

Muhr was found mentally incompetent to continue in the trial, dealing a setback to the prosecution, which had built its case around Muhr’s theory that a defective and illegally installed space heater caused the deadly fire.

Because of uncertainty over what caused the blaze, and the need to brief Prader on the background of the case, Seiss has said he doesn’t expect a verdict in the case until spring. On Monday, he ordered the proceedings postponed again until March 10.

Sixteen defendants _ cable-car operators, technicians and government officials _ are being tried for their roles in the Nov. 11, 2000, inferno in Kaprun, 60 miles south of Salzburg.

The fire broke out as a crowded cable car carried 161 skiers, snowboarders and a driver up the Kitzsteinhorn glacier through a tunnel. Only a few managed to escape what was Austria’s deadliest peacetime disaster.

Previously, investigators said the blaze started when the heater caused hydraulic brake oil in nearby pipes to overheat and drip onto the plastic-coated floor, setting it afire.

But eight expert witnesses testified that the fire also could have been caused by cable that overheated.

Most victims were from Austria and Germany. Eight were Americans, while others were from Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

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