Marine pilot found guilty of conspiracy

Fatal gondola accident videotape was burned


CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Marine Corps Capt. Richard Ashby was found guilty yesterday of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for hiding and helping destroy what might have been crucial evidence of why his jet sliced a ski gondola system last year, killing 20 people in the north Italian Alps.

That evidence, a home videotape recorded from inside the cockpit during the flight of Ashby's EA-6B Prowler jet, was sneaked out of the plane by the pilot from Mission Viejo, Calif., and tossed into a bonfire by his co-pilot as they faced an international criminal investigation for causing the deaths at the ski resort.

Ashby was acquitted in March of all 20 manslaughter charges, but the military jury in this court-martial pronounced him guilty of helping to keep the tape out of the hands of investigators looking for answers to one of the worst peacetime accidents in U.S. military history.

As Ashby stood ramrod straight in the courtroom, his mother, Carol Anderson, wept.

At her son's first trial, she jumped and shouted for joy at his acquittal. This time, after the judge warned against any courtroom outbursts, she repeated over and over to herself, "Oh no! Oh no!"

The same jury will determine Ashby's punishment; he could face as much as 10 years in prison or dismissal from the service.

"I don't believe myself or any of the crew had a criminal mind," Ashby, 32, told the jury yesterday in the post-verdict, sentencing phase of the trial.

"I want to do what's right. I've always tried to do what's right," he said.

Standing before the jury box, he said he would respect whatever punishment he was given.

"As far as the Marine Corps goes and my feelings about the Marine Corps," Ashby said, "I'll always love the Marine Corps."

The jury is to begin its deliberations on punishment on Monday.

Earlier in the trial, Ashby testified that he was "wrong" in not giving the videotape to authorities.

"We should have turned it over to somebody to watch," Ashby testified this week. But, he added, "I don't think taking a personal videotape is a crime."

He also testified that he scooped up the tape as he and his three crew members hastily climbed out of the damaged plane after returning it to Aviano, Italy.

"I wanted to get out of the aircraft," he said. "I was shaking. I wanted out."

Several relatives of those killed in the accident testified that the tape might have cleared up questions about the collision in February 1998.

Pub Date: 5/08/99

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