In the almost four years since he was shot down over Nicaragua, helping to touch off what was to become known as the Iran-Contra scandal, life hasn't been easy for Eugene Hasenfus. He says he was out of work for a year, his three children suffer continuing harassment at school and he is more than $100,000 in debt. In April the family's house in Marinette, Wis., burned down.
"I wish I could change history, but I can't," Hasenfus, 49, said here Monday. "I just have to live with it."
Nevertheless, Hasenfus, who parachuted into history in 1986 when a Sandinista missile hit his plane dropping arms and ammunition to the U.S.-backed Contras, is seeking a measure of retribution.
Jury selection begins today in a lawsuit filed by Hasenfus and his wife Sally seeking damages from Southern Air Transport and former Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, already convicted of a felony charge in connection with a cover-up of the Iran-Contra affair.
In their suit the Hasenfuses allege that Southern Air and Secord employed Hasenfus as a "kicker" (one who dumps cargo out of a plane) in the resupply operation and then abandoned him after he was captured. Hasenfus spent more than two months in jail before being pardoned and freed by the Nicaraguan government.
The Hasenfuses' attorney, Brian R. Strange of Los Angeles, says the trial promises to reveal new details of the tangled Iran-Contra affair, which is still under investigation by independent prosecutor Lawrence M. Walsh. Among those deposed in the case are former National Security Council aide Oliver L. North, and Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs. Expected to testify is Felix Rodriguez, the former CIA agent who was the resupply operation's chief contact in El Salvador.
Strange said he will attempt to prove that Southern Air and Secord were in fact Hasenfus's employers, and that they subjected Hasenfus to undue risk by making him fly during the day in "wholly inadequate and dilapidated" airplanes with substandard equipment.
Hasenfus's plane was shot down at midday. Three other crew members, including two Americans--the pilot, William J. Cooper, and crewman Wallace B. Sawyer--were killed. Sawyer's widow is also a plaintiff in the civil suit, which asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
"We're going to show that this operation was one big enterprise run by North and the NSC, and Secord and Southern Air, in an effort to make money," said Strange. After Hasenfus was captured, Strange said, a State Department official promised Hasenfus's wife, Sally, "that all expenses and costs would be taken care of by the employer. But when they asked for reimbursement, everyone denied it."
Hasenfus said he was unemployed in 1986 when Cooper, who had hired him to work with the CIA airline Air America in Southeast Asia from 1966 to 1973, called and offered him a job as an "air freight specialist" in Central America. Hasenfus said he made 10 flights, and was paid about $3,000 a month.
Hasenfus said he believed he was working for the U.S. government through Southern Air, a Miami-based airline which was owned by the CIA until 1973.
Hasenfus, who now has a construction job, says he hopes the trial "will put all this far behind me. I just want to forget about this, pretend it never happened." But, he said, the suit is necessary because he owes huge legal fees, including $30,000 to former Atty Gen. Griffin B. Bell, who represented him in Nicaragua, and others.
Also, adds Sally Hasenfus: "The story hasn't been told. If I didn't have three kids, I would have fled and started a new life. We are still fearful, all of the time. But I want people to understand what was happening there. I'm not looking forward to the trial; you'd have to be crazy. But for the first time, I'd like to tell the story of what really happened."