EPA:

Indicted in 1996 ValuJet crash, airline mechanic fled

Fifteen years ago today, ValuJet Flight 592 left Miami International Airport en route to Atlanta for what turned out to be a brief and tragic journey.

Shortly after takeoff, a fire broke out on board the 27-year-old DC-9 aircraft and, within minutes, the plane plummeted into the Everglades. The death toll: all 105 passengers and five crew members.

For Marilyn Chamberlin, whose daughter, Capt. Candalyn Kubkeck, was the plane's pilot, the memory of that day still stings.

"Fifteen years, you never get closure," Chamberlin said. "I don't care what they say, it's always an open wound. So you just live the best you can."

But Chamberlin, whose daughter was 35, said she got some small comfort this week from learning that U.S. EPA has not given up its hunt for the lone suspect from a criminal investigation of the crash who never saw the inside of a courtroom.

Mauro Valenzuela is among 17 fugitives being sought by EPA for alleged environmental crimes. His wanted poster, which includes a physical description and a rundown of his alleged violations, appears on EPA's online fugitive directory -- www.epa.gov/fugitives -- that has been operated through the agency's Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training since 2008 (Greenwire, Jan. 4).

Valenzuela was a mechanic for the now-defunct airline maintenance contractor SabreTech, the focus of what became the first ever criminal prosecution over a U.S. airline crash.

According to EPA, Valenzuela allegedly helped certify that a set of cabin oxygen generators had been properly removed and replaced. His actions, the agency said, caused those generators to be loaded on ValuJet Flight 592 without proper markings, safety caps, packaging and other safety measures. Those oxygen generators played a key role in the fire that caused the crash.

If caught, Valenzuela could be charged with the illegal transportation of hazardous materials aboard a commercial aircraft, making false statements, conspiracy and a slew of other charges related to his decision to flee rather than face his indictment.

"I hadn't realized they were even pursuing him. I'm delighted to hear they are," Chamberlin said this week from her home in California. "I appreciate there's still some interest, most people have long forgotten it. ... I just thought he probably outsmarted them like everyone else did and got ahead of the law."

'Everything that could go wrong, did'

While the ValuJet investigation resulted in a landmark criminal prosecution focusing on SabreTech, Chamberlin and other family members of those who died remain disappointed in the end result.

A National Transportation Safety Board report from 1998 found that the fire started as a result of the ignition of one or more of the more than 100 oxygen generators that were improperly carried in Flight 592's forward cargo hold.

The board found SabreTech had improperly prepared, packaged and identified the unexpended chemical oxygen generators.

Investigators showed that a cheap set of safety caps could have prevented the generators from exploding.

The NTSB report also noted that ValuJet had not properly overseen its contract maintenance program to ensure compliance with hazardous materials requirements and practices. It was determined the crash may have been prevented had the Federal Aviation Administration required smoke detection and fire suppression systems in aircraft Class D cargo compartments -- a safety measure that has subsequently become standard in the United States.

"With the Valujet crash everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, and there were so many broken rules it was unbelievable," Chamberlin said.

In July 1999, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida filed a 24-count indictment against SabreTech and three of its former employees, Danny Gonzalez, who served as the company's director of maintenance, and mechanics Eugene Florence and Valenzuela.

But that fall, as the trial approached, Valenzuela, a native of Chile, fled.

Valenzuela's departure allowed him to avoid prosecution but, in retrospect, he might have been better off had he gone to trial.

What if Valenzuela returned?

After several weeks of trial later that year, a jury acquitted both Gonzalez and Florence on all charges. SabreTech was acquitted on charges of conspiracy and violating hazardous material regulations but it was found guilty on nine charges involving the reckless transportation of hazardous materials and failing to properly train its employees. On appeal, a U.S. circuit court threw out eight of those charges and only upheld the charge regarding improper training.

Had Valenzuela gone to trial, he would have been acquitted too, said Jane Moscowitz, who was Valenzuela's lawyer until he fled the country. The Miami attorney also defended Florence, who faced nearly the exact same charges as Valenzuela.

"The crash of the plane was not a criminal act," Moscowitz said. "It was an accident and a tragedy."

Moscowitz said two key points were crucial in convincing the jury to drop the charges against Florence.

When it came to the government's case "the SabreTech employees dealing with the canisters had no earthly idea that those canisters would go on that plane," she said. "They were throwing them away. Does anyone actually believe their garbage is going to be flown someplace?"

Moscowitz noted that the defense was also able to show that other factors contributed to the fire that took down Flight 592.

"It didn't help to have all those oxygen canisters once there was a fire, no issue there. You can't say that that was a good thing," she said. But "we felt we had shown there were other causes of fire on that plane," such as faulty wiring issues.

Nearly a dozen years after the trial, Moscowitz questioned EPA's portrayal of Valenzuela on its fugitives directory.

"Maybe those guys who are making that list don't know the facts," she said. "Those of us who tried the case do."

Considering the outcome of the case, there is some question as to what the government would do if they are able to one day capture Valenzuela and bring him back to the United States.

Alicia Valle a spokeswoman and special counsel to the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of Florida, declined to comment about what might happen in that scenario.

"Valenzuela already is charged ... in one case with the SabreTech matter, in the other case with bond-jump [and] contempt of court," Valle said. "We really cannot speculate about which charges we would go forward on if the fugitive were arrested."

But in an email statement this week, Howard Cantor, EPA's acting director of the Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training, said the agency and its national and international law enforcement partners "remain committed to seeing this fugitive face the criminal justice system."

Moscowitz acknowledged there is no statute of limitations when it comes to the charges Valenzuela faces because he fled after he was charged.

"Whether they would or could [reopen the ValuJet case if they caught Valenzuela] would depend on prosecutorial discretion," she said. "One would hope they wouldn't."

'I almost feel sorry for him'

The National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation helps serve as an advocate for families and loved ones of those who die in plane crashes. The group, which helped sponsor the events during the 10th anniversary of crash, is bringing together about 30 family members of victims for a commemorative event today at the ValuJet 592 Memorial built about 8 miles from the crash site on the edge of the Everglades.

The group's executive director, Gail Dunham, said this week there would be plenty to be gained from pursuing a case against Valenzuela if he were eventually caught.

"I would love to hear what he had to say," Dunham said.

Fifteen years later, she said, Valenzuela might be in a better position to tell the truth or at least shed new light on the incident.

"His defense may be 'It was a supervisor that told me to do it,'" she said. "We might find out that an employee from ValuJet was there telling them what to do. ... It would be very worthwhile."

She added that learning as much information as possible is very important to the family members of those who die in plane crashes.

"After many years, I have never met a family member that said the truth was so terrible they should have kept it from me," she said.

Susan Smith, whose son, Paul Jordan Smith, was also killed in the crash, agreed that Valenzuela needs to "face the music."

But she also expressed sympathy for the man who the government alleges played a key role in the crash.

"I almost feel sorry for him," she said. "He didn't purposely cause that crash. ... I feel sorry for him that he felt that he had to run and not go through the justice system."

Smith -- whose son took Flight 592 as he tried to get home to Montgomery, Ala., for Mother's Day -- said she believes a lot of people were at fault and she acknowledged the "stupidity" with which the airline handled the transport of the hazardous oxygen tanks.

"You know the airline industry. Rush, rush, rush. Meet their schedules, meet their costs, everything else," she said. "And people's lives are at stake and so many people on the ground running the airlines don't think about that quite often."

But she said she has let go of any hatred she might have had for the individuals involved in the tragedy.

"It isn't worth harboring those feelings," Smith said. "We loved our son so much. He knew we loved him, and he loved us unconditionally and he was grateful for our unconditional love. And that's what we have to carry with us until we see him again."