Marine Pilot Sought to Get Back Into Jet, Witness Says

From Associated Press

A Marine pilot accused of getting rid of a videotape of a flight in which an Italian ski gondola cable was clipped, killing 20 people, tried to get back into the jet's cockpit after it landed, a sergeant testified Thursday.

Master Sgt. Richard Henry told a court-martial that Capt. Richard Ashby, on trial for obstruction of justice and conspiracy, approached him once alone and a second time with someone he thought was a Marine commander.

"He identified himself as the pilot and stated he needed to get back in the aircraft to get a map and some other equipment," said Henry, who was the assistant fire chief at the NATO base in Aviano, Italy. Ashby was denied access both times.

Ashby, 32, of Mission Viejo, Calif., is charged in the disappearance of a personal videotape his navigator shot during the Feb. 3, 1998, flight. He could be sentenced to 10 years in prison or dismissed from the service if convicted.

A separate jury acquitted Ashby last month of 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the tragedy near Cavalese, Italy.

Navy investigator Mark Fallon said the tape was important because it would have provided irrefutable evidence about what happened during the flight.

Fallon also said he considered his work a criminal investigation from the day it began, on Feb. 4, 1998. A formal order for a criminal investigation wasn't issued until March 14. The dates were important to prosecutors and defense lawyers because the prosecution contends Ashby should have known an inquiry was underway when he helped get rid of the tape a few days later.

Ashby has admitted taking the tape from the jet, leaving a blank one in its place and later giving it to his navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, 31, of Westbury, N.Y.

But Ashby maintains he did not intend to obstruct justice. Schweitzer pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and conspiracy and was sentenced to dismissal from the Marines.

Schweitzer said he threw the tape into a fire because he feared a frame on it of his smiling face might be used to vilify him and the rest of the crew in the Italian media.

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