Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino, the two American pilots of the Legacy executive jet that collided with the Boeing 737 over the Brazilian jungle causing Brazil’s deadliest air accident ever are back home in the US.
It’s been a 70-day ordeal in which they had their passports taken away and remained locked in a hotel room in Rio until they were arraigned and charged with involuntary manslaughter just before taking a private jet, also a Legacy, back home.
Both were received this Saturday, December 9, as heroes at the Long Island MacArthur Airport with red carpet, cheers, applause and tears of a crowd of about 200 people, which included family, friends, colleagues, bosses, politicians and all the survivors of the Legacy – they were able to land safety in an Air Force base – with the exception of a executive from Embraer, the company that sold the plane.
During the welcome-back ceremony, ExcelAire’s president Bob Sherry, their boss, asked for a minute of silence in memory of the Boeing’s victims. He also used the occasion to lambast the Brazilian authorities.
Sherry asked Brazil’s Federal Police to step aside and let the investigators do their work. He pondered that the technical personnel should be allowed to do their probe without political pressure in order to prevent this kind of tragedy to happen again.
Although Lepore and Paladino before getting their passports back had to sign a paper committing themselves to return to Brazil in case the Brazilian authorities want to question them further or to serve jail time in case they are convicted, it’s doubtful they will set foot in Brazil ever again.
Commenting on the subject, their lawyer in the United States, Robert Torricella, said during the welcome party that "any speculation is really inappropriate." But on Friday, upon hearing that the pilots had been charged with involuntary manslaughter he had commented:
"The decision of this investigator to accuse Joe and Jan of a crime without ever hearing their testimony is incredibly absurd."
For House Representative Peter King, who also was at the ceremony, everything will be done by the US authorities so that all charges against the pilots be dropped. According to him there’s no chance they will return: "There’s absolutely no need for anyone to be going back to Brazil."
In Brazil, lawyer José Carlos Dias also guaranteed that any legal procedure from now on will be done exclusively in the US. He explained: "
"There is an agreement between Brazil and the United States that allows Brazilian authorities to travel to the US to hear them personally. Or they can simply make sworn declarations, which have judicial value. We still don’t know when this is going to happen. I believe that perhaps around January."
According to Dias even if the pilots are convicted of a crime and get a jail sentence they will be able to get an alternative sentence in the United States.
Lepore, 42, said, "It feels good to be home" and Paladino, 34, echoed with a "It feels great. I’m glad to be home." But that’s the extent of their declarations up to now.
Lepore, 42, was received by son Michael, 8, and Nicole, his three-year old daughter who carried a covey of red, white and blue balloons while another girl raised a sign saying the return of the pilots was the best Christmas gift they all could get.
ExcelAire’s vice president, David Whimer, who was aboard the Legacy when it collided with the Boeing defended the pilots actions during the flight: Have our pilots acted correctly he rhetorically asked to then respond: "The answer is unequivocally yes."
The American pilots’ departure from Brazil had scenes reminiscent of hot pursuit movies. They left the São Paulo Federal Police headquarter in a van from the US consulate.
Chased by several media vehicles the consulate car’s driver rushed to the Cumbica International airport at speeds up to 80 miles, zigzagging and cutting other cars in dangerous maneuvers. Two motorcycles ended up being hit by the media vans.
Everything had been pre-arranged by the Consulate. The plane was ready to take off. The consular van entered through the airport’s VIP gate, which was immediately closed shutting the reporters outside while six policemen on horseback protected the entrance. Later, the Brazilian air authority confided that the measure had been taken to heed a request from the US consulate.
The Federal Police Case
In response to criticism by the ExcelAire’s president, the Brazilian Federal Police released a note in which they state that they only started to investigate the Boeing accident after they were asked by the Justice to do so.
They also informed that they have summoned a team of aviation experts to help them sort out the case. As for the charges levied against the pilots, the note explains, they are the exclusive responsibility of the police chief who presided the inquiry.
The Federal Police also issued an official note on the testimony by the two Legacy pilots:
"This morning, the Legacy aircraft’s pilots were at São Paulo Federal Police’s headquarters and were interrogated. They exercised their right to remain silent, assured by the Constitution, even though they were informed that this was a moment in which they could exercise their defense and give their own versions and explanations about the facts. Federal policemen from the Coordination of Operational Aviation, observed the interrogation.
The exercise of their right to silence does not change the decision ordering the return of their passports since that was a strict juridical resolution, issued by Brasília’s Regional Federal Court, and complied with by the federal police.
The Legacy aircraft’s pilots were arraigned on charges considered in article 261, paragraph 3, combined with articles 263 and 258, all from the penal code, which contemplate the crime of "exposing to danger vessel or aircraft", in the culpable negligence modality, aggravated by the result "death". The sentence set for this crime is the same one applied to involuntary manslaughter, increased by a third, according to the Penal Code’s article 258.
The decision to charge them was made based in element of proof found in the police inquiry’s proceedings which point to the lack of necessary caution which is expected and required from pilots performing a flight.
The investigations haven’t been completed yet and other behaviors may also be blamed as causes of the accident.
The police inquiry should be sent to Sinop/MT’s Federal Justice, December 13, with a request for additional time in order to continue the investigations."