After more than two years of legal wrangling, two executives of Space Ordnance Systems pleaded no contest Tuesday to three misdemeanor counts of illegally storing hazardous waste at the aerospace company’s two Santa Clarita Valley plants.
Under terms of an agreement with the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, 84 similar counts against Joseph Cabaret and Michael Murphy were dropped in exchange for their pleas.
Los Angeles Municipal Judge Xenophon F. Lang ordered the two to return to court May 29, when Murphy will be sentenced to 30 weekend days in County Jail and Cabaret will be sentenced to 10 to 30 days in County Jail, Deputy Dist. Atty. John P. Bernardi said.
A third defendant, James Smith, will enter a no-contest plea to three counts May 1, said his attorney, Michael R. Magasin. Smith, who faces the same charges as his colleagues, is a consultant for SOS but was the company’s director of administration when the charges were filed.
Donald Etra, the attorney for SOS, said the company, which also was charged with 87 misdemeanor counts, will enter a no-contest plea next Tuesday. He would not say how many counts the plea will involve.
SOS could face a fine of $5,000 to $50,000 on each count, Bernardi said. The company already has agreed to spend more than $2 million to clean up explosive waste around its Mint Canyon plant in Agua Dulce and its Sand Canyon plant in Canyon Country.
Bernardi and Deputy Dist. Atty. Clifford L. Klein said they were pleased with the outcome of the cases against Cabaret, who was president of SOS when the case was filed but is now a vice president, and Murphy, general manager of the Mint Canyon plant. However, Bernardi predicted that there will be “a mixed reaction in the community,” with some critics saying the men should have been prosecuted on more charges and given stiffer sentences.
“But we got what we wanted and that was jail time,” Bernardi said. “For typical defendants, 30 days is nothing. But for business executives like these, I feel this is a significant sentence. . . . We consider the fear of a jail sentence to be sufficient in deterring other executives who might also be engaging in similar violations.”
The case stemmed from a March 8, 1984, raid on the Mint and Sand canyons plants by a small army of county and state health and law-enforcement officials. Legal proceedings dragged on as SOS and its executives refused at first to enter pleas. They said the charges were too vague, making it impossible to mount an effective defense.
The waste-disposal issue has been been controversial in the rural areas surrounding the plants.
Prosecutors said that more than 2,300 barrels of explosive waste were being stored without proper permits and that some had been dumped in nearby riverbeds.
Trace levels of toxic chemicals were found in private wells downhill from the plants. SOS faces more than $35 million in lawsuits filed by neighbors, who claim that chemicals in their well water made them ill, caused distress and killed their livestock.
The no-contest plea of Murphy and Cabaret, neither of whom was in court Tuesday, cannot be used against the company in the lawsuits.
“It leaves them some form of defense” if they are sued, Bernardi said.
SOS, a division of TransTechnology Corp. of Sherman Oaks, manufactures flares, pilot ejection systems and explosive devices for the Defense Department and foreign governments. It makes devices that open hatches on the space shuttle.