Two hours of conversations by two American pilots between themselves and with the air control towers in São José dos Campos, in the interior of São Paulo and in Brazilian capital BrasÀlia, might decide in the next few days if the pilots of the Legacy executive jet can go back to the US, ending their virtual house arrest, or if they will be taken to prison.
The transcription of the dialogues in English have been translated into Portuguese and a team of experts is expected to start today the analysis of the material.
They will be looking for hints that Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino acted in an irresponsible or criminal way that ended up causing Brazil’s worst air accident ever with 154 dead.
Anonymous testimonies published by the Brazilian media have painted a picture of failing equipment in the control center and less than professional behavior by some air controllers.
All this information, however, hasn’t changed the fact that the Brazilian authorities consider the American pilots their main suspect. The analysis of the conversations may mean the difference between declaring Lepore and Paladino innocent or guilty of gross negligence or even criminal malice.
Federal police chief Renato Sayão, who is in charge of the investigation, had indicated last week that the interview with the pilots would be just a pro-forma, bureaucratic act and that the Americans would be free to leave soon after their testimony.
He has changed considerably his tone, however. "If it can be proved that the pilots deliberately engaged in dangerous behavior, like turning off the transponder, disobeying control tower orders or changing the flight altitude on their own initiative, they will not escape indictment for felonious homicide."
If they are found innocent or if there is an indictment for involuntary manslaughter the American pilots, whose passports have been confiscated since the beginning of October, will be able to leave immediately to the US.
In case they are indicted for felonious homicide, however, the Brazilian Justice may order their temporary arrest and they will be in jail while the inquiry’s fact finding goes on.
"This is a very serious crime," says Sayão, "carrying from 8 to 24 years of jail time."
People close to the investigation say that after close to two months of probing, the Brazilian Federal Police seem inclined to indict the two American pilots.
According to Sayão, the transcript shows a dialogue between the two pilots, right after the collision with the Boeing 737, which is very "revealing." But he refused to tell what he heard.