Mystery Flight’s Pilot Says He Can’t Remember Gunshot to Abdomen

Times Staff Writer

Lawyer Thomas Root told federal investigators Saturday that he had no idea how he suffered the bullet wound to his abdomen that doctors discovered after he was pulled from the Atlantic Ocean at the conclusion of a mysterious six-hour airborne odyssey.

Root suggested to investigators that he may have suffered from oxygen deprivation, causing him to lose consciousness during the flight, National Transportation Safety Board official Andrew Alston told reporters after his 40-minute interview with Root at the Hollywood, Fla., hospital where Root is recuperating.

But Alston said “inconsistencies” between Root’s statements and other available evidence must be resolved before the agency can determine what occurred during the attorney’s bizarre 800-mile plane trip, which began Thursday morning in Washington and ended when his Cessna 210 Citation crashed about 14 miles off the Bahamian island of Eleuthera.

‘Large Inconsistency’


“We have no reason to disbelieve him at this point,” Alston said. “We have some questions. . . . He doesn’t remember a gunshot wound and we see one. That is a large inconsistency that we hope to resolve.”

An FBI agent separately interviewed Root on Saturday at the hospital, where he is in intensive care and listed in stable condition.

While no new evidence emerged to explain Root’s shooting, documents drawn from official files of the Federal Communications Commission are shedding additional light on Root’s troubled business affairs and those of the Georgia company with which he has been closely associated, Sonrise Management Services.

Judge Fears ‘Sham’


Applications for FM radio station licenses that were organized by Sonrise “bear all the indicia of the classic ‘sham,’ ” one FCC law judge wrote in an official order filed earlier this year. The activities of Sonrise “could turn out to be a scam on innocent investors,” Judge Walter C. Miller wrote.

Root represented the applications before the commission and drew criticism for missing deadlines and appointments in pursuing them.

The company is being investigated by regulatory officials in North Carolina and has attracted attention in several other Southeastern states. In addition, several federal regulatory agencies are examining both Sonrise’s operations and Root’s legal practice.

Draws Comment


Sonrise’s recruitment of radio station investors was widely commented upon within the tightly knit community of lawyers here who handle license applications before the FCC, but they were unknown to the general public until after Root’s dramatic plane flight raised questions about a possible suicide attempt.

Root took off from Washington early Thursday en route to a legal proceeding in Rocky Mount, N.C. Shortly before arriving there he told air controllers that he was having trouble breathing, his plane veered off course and began heading south down the Atlantic Coast. About six hours and 800 miles after his takeoff, the plane ran out of gas and crashed into the water, at which point Root, wounded but alive, swam away.

“He’s a very lucky guy,” his attending surgeon, Dr. Robert Cohen, told the Miami Herald. “I don’t know if he wanted to be lucky. We’ll find out sooner or later.”

Suicide Attempt Denied


Finding out, however, could be difficult. Root’s family members, who have been visiting him in Hollywood Memorial Hospital, deny police suggestions that the gunshot wound he suffered two inches above his navel was self-inflicted.

Root told investigators Saturday that he kept a loaded .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver in the glove compartment of his Cessna 210. Family members have speculated that the gun could have gone off when the plane hit the ocean, but police say that powder burns on Root’s skin indicate that the gun was fired at close range.

Both the plane and the gun are now at the bottom of the ocean, several thousand feet down, and officials have no plans to try to raise them. And the NTSB’s Alston said doctors would be unlikely to be able to tell exactly when Root had been shot, noting that the application of a pressure bandage on the wound immediately after Root was pulled from the water would make such a determination difficult.

Blood Test Awaited


The safety board does expect blood test results on Monday that may shed light on Root’s suggestion that he suffered oxygen deprivation or the early theory by some investigators that he had blacked out from carbon monoxide inhalation. Oxygen deprivation would be unusual at the altitude Root was flying--10,000 feet--investigators said.

Root’s mysterious trip has focused attention on his business ventures with Sonrise, which has organized at least 163 partnerships to apply for licenses to operate small FM stations across the country, including 16 in California.

Typically, according to a sworn declaration submitted to the FCC earlier this year by the firm’s chairman, Ralph M. Savage, Sonrise would collect about $90,000 from the investors, with $11,000 of it going to license application fees and engineers. Sonrise and its salesmen would keep about $47,000 while Root would take $32,000 for legal fees, Savage wrote.

No Stations Operating


Sonrise and Root together would have taken in roughly $13 million over the last two years from investors, according to those figures. None of the investors have yet won permission to operate an FM station, according to FCC files.

Commission lawyers have questioned whether the partnerships organized by Sonrise and represented by Root were independent or actually controlled and directed by Sonrise. Commission rules forbid any single owner from controlling more than 14 FM stations. In depositions given during commission proceedings and in interviews with The Times, several investors in Sonrise projects appeared to have only a passing familiarity with the projects they were applying for.

Root has repeatedly been chastised by FCC officials for procedural failures. A year and a half ago, a lawyer opposing Root in a case filed affidavits charging him with having falsified a document submitted to the agency.

Drug Trade Reports


Separately, several news organizations have reported that federal officials are investigating whether Root may have been involved in the drug trade, although little evidence of that has surfaced.

Root’s brother, Todd Root of Burlingame, Calif., on Saturday strongly denied an ABC News report that the Customs Service had placed Root’s plane on a drug-related watch list after it made several trips to the Caribbean. His brother, Todd Root told reporters, had no involvement in drug trafficking and had never flown the plane outside the United States.