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2 Acquitted in Deaths of Pilots Killed in Crash

Times Staff Writer

Two Northern California men have been acquitted of murder charges in an unusual case stemming from the deaths of two air-tanker pilots whose planes collided while they were fighting a small Mendocino County brush fire two years ago.

Frank Brady and Richard Mortensen were charged with second-degree murder under the theory that they were culpable for the pilots’ deaths because they had started the fire while manufacturing methamphetamine in a trailer.

After more than a week of deliberation, a Mendocino County jury delivered a mixed verdict late Thursday afternoon, rejecting the murder counts but convicting the men of drug charges.

Larry Groff, 55, and Lars Stratte, 45, both veteran pilots, died Aug. 27, 2001 in a midair crash near Hopland. Groff was flying back to the wildfire from Ukiah after picking up a load of fire retardant when his plane collided with Stratte’s, which was circling the scene.

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Arguing that the 250-acre blaze had been sparked by flammable materials Mortensen and Brady were using in a meth lab they were operating in a trailer in a rural area near Hopland, the county district attorneys’ office pursued a relatively novel prosecution: The two could be charged with second-degree murder because they had engaged in an inherently dangerous activity -- the manufacturing of methamphetamine -- that resulted in the deaths of the two pilots.

A 1998 state Court of Appeals decision upheld a similar prosecution of a Riverside County woman. She was convicted of second-degree murder after her home meth lab caught fire, sparking a conflagration that killed three of her children.

The defense in the air tanker trial argued that, while chemicals for meth-making were stored in the trailer, the defendants were not running a meth lab there. The fire started accidentally, Brady testified, while he was heating bath water over an outdoor campfire. The defense also suggested that pilot error had contributed to the tanker crash.

Deliberations were prolonged when a juror was dismissed at the beginning of the week after telling fellow panel members that he had heard years before the fire that methamphetamine was being made in the trailer. An alternate was seated and, at the end of the day Thursday, the jury announced its verdict in Ukiah.

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Brady and Mortensen were both convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine and conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. Mortensen faces a maximum term of eight years. Brady was additionally convicted of unlawfully causing a fire that destroyed a wildland and willfully causing a fire that caused great bodily injuries. He faces a maximum of about 14 years. The two are scheduled to be sentenced April 21.

“It was pretty much a compromise verdict,” said William Pinkus, Mortensen’s defense attorney, adding that he thought the murder prosecution had “been a stretch.”


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