Cable Car Court-Martial Begins
Posted February 7, 1999 6:00 a.m. EST
CAMP LEJEUNE — Family members of some of the victims killed in a ski gondola accident in Italy last year came to Camp Lejeune Monday.
They watched opening arguments in the court-martial of a Cherry Point Marine charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Capt. Richard Ashby is charged with slicing the cable with his jet in Italy last February. Twenty people died.
Relatives of the victims believe Ashby was "hotdogging," and there may be an attempt to prove Ashby's plane had executed a barrel roll just before snapping the wire.
The prosecution maintains Ashby made several bad decisions that resulted in gross negligence.
"It's like an individual who gets up in the morning and decides he's going to speed," Lt. Carol Joyce said in her opening statement. "Capt. Ashby needs to be held responsible."
Ashby came to his court martial with his mother, Carol, by his side. Ashby's defense team says the accident was not his fault, that he was not properly informed nor properly trained.
Ashby, 31, of Mission Viejo, Calif., was at the controls of an EA-6B Prowler radar-jamming jet on Feb. 3, 1998, when its wing cut the cable supporting the Mount Cermis ski lift gondola in the Italian Alps. The 20 people on the gondola were killed.
"Whenever he had the opportunity to fly too low and too fast, he did it," she said of Ashby's conduct that day. Joyce said a back-seat crewman will testify Ashby even performed a barrel roll during the flight, against regulations.
Joyce said the Marine Corps had imposed a 1,000-foot minimum altitude on all flights in Italy after a 1996 accident involving another low-flying Prowler. The cable that Ashby's jet struck was suspended 370 feet above the ground.
Ashby's attorneys have said he didn't know the cable was there because it wasn't on the map he was issued, and that an optical illusion may have made him think he was flying higher than he was.
One of Ashby's lawyers, Capt. Jon Shelburne, said in his opening statement today that "good pilots occasionally have accidents. Nobody's arguing that mistakes weren't made."
But Shelburne said Ashby's actions weren't criminal, and he cautioned the jurors not to accept technical data about the flight at face value. He said data recorders are subject to error, and the Prowler is a Vietnam-era aircraft that is being used long past its intended life span.
"It was an accident waiting to happen," Shelburne said.
He said there was poor communication with the Air Force, which was supposed to provide information about the flight areas, and he said an Italian helicopter pilot will testify the cables were not properly marked visually and were nearly invisible to the naked eye.
About a half-dozen relatives of the victims were in the courtroom and others watched on closed-circuit television.
"The goal is to find out what happened. But most important, they want to see an end from this," said John Eaves, a Jackson, Miss., attorney representing eight families.
Ashby, whose squadron was based at Cherry Point Marine Air Station in North Carolina, was on his second tour of duty at Aviano air base in Italy when the accident occurred.
He faces a maximum of more than 200 years in prison if convicted of the manslaughter counts, plus charges of destruction of private and military property and dereliction of duty.
Ashby's navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, 31, of Westbury, N.Y., faces the same charges, plus 20 counts of negligent homicide. His trial is scheduled to begin March 1.
Charges against the Prowler's two back seat crewmen were dismissed.
Attorneys for the German families are waiting for the court martial to end before they move on civil suits.