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Mother of Pilot in Italian Tragedy Leans on Faith

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While her Marine aviator son faces a possible court-martial in the accidental death of 20 people in Italy, a Mission Viejo woman says it is the family’s faith in God and her faith in her son’s innocence that sustain her.

Capt. Richard J. Ashby was piloting an EA-6B Prowler jet Feb. 3 when he struck a cable supporting a ski-lift gondola, sending all aboard the cable car plummeting to their deaths.

After a two-day hearing in Camp Lejeune, N.C., a military judge ruled this week that Ashby and his co-pilot/navigator, Capt. Joseph P. Schweitzer of Westbury, N.Y., should face a court-martial on charges of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destruction of government property. Now, the Marine Corps’ Atlantic region commander must decide if the case should indeed go forward to a court-martial trial.

“I was very disappointed in the outcome,” said Ashby’s mother, Carol Anderson of Mission Viejo, who attended the hearing. “What we heard was all evidence that supported my son and that crew.”

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She referred to testimony that Ashby, 31, was provided faulty flight maps on the day of the tragedy. The maps gave no indication of the gondola and its cables. Ashby also testified that his altitude when he hit the cable had earlier been approved by superiors.

“We had been very optimistic,” Anderson said from the Mission Viejo home where the family has lived 32 years. “We’re still very optimistic he’ll be acquitted.”

Ashby was flying through northern Italy’s Dolomite Mountains for the first time. He had logged 750 accident-free hours in the same type of plane, including surveillance missions over war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Investigators say the plane struck two fist-sized steel lines supporting the cable car, at 370 feet and 364 feet, sending the gondola plunging. The aircraft was damaged but landed safely.

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Ashby and his crew were sent back to their squadron’s base, in Cherry Point, N.C., while U.S. and Italian authorities investigated the accident.

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The tragedy has ignited a firestorm of controversy in Italy, where politicians said Ashby was flying too low. They compared U.S. fliers to cowboys and in some cases demanded the removal of U.S. bases from the country.

“My heart goes out to those families, my son’s heart goes out to those families,” Anderson said, holding back tears Thursday. “He’s going to have to live with that the rest of his life.”

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Anderson said she talks with her son daily--if he doesn’t call, she phones him. “It’s like ‘E.T.--call home.’ ”

And she said she often uses e-mail to buoy his spirits. “I can send him one in the middle of the day that just says, ‘I love you.’ ”

Ashby, who grew up dreaming of flying while watching jets take off from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, has said his religious faith is helping him through his difficulties. His mother said the same is true for her, and that she sends her son Scripture verses to hearten him.

“It’s the only thing that’s getting us through all this,” she said. "[God] is in control.”

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