STANDING IN COURT last Wednesday, Michael Vincent Trusty hardly looked like a relentless saboteur. Rather, his rural Texas roots were on display as Trusty stood, over 6 feet 5 inches tall, wearing jeans and a leather jacket, silently listening to the proceedings as the U.S. attorney charged the former airline mechanic with 10 counts of sabotaging airplanes at Sea-Tac and Spokane airports in 1999.
The U.S. attorney's office says Trusty, who was 24 when he was arrested last June, was desperate for money and damaged aircraft so he could work overtime to make repairs. Unfortunately, the alleged sabotage, which involved freighters owned by Kitty Hawk AirCargo, wasn't always detected before the planes took off, the prosecution says. The complaint says that the pilot on one of those flights had to dump fuel while in flight and make an emergency landing. The U.S. attorney says Trusty sliced critical control cables, cut wires to the autopilot system, disabled wing flaps, and unscrewed fittings to cause hydraulic oil leaks.
The prosecution will rely heavily on Kitty Hawk employees to make its case against Trusty: Trusty's supervisors told FBI investigators that Trusty was the only person with access to each of the airplanes on which damage was discovered. Brad Staub, one of Trusty's former co-workers, contacted Seattle Weekly with exclusive details on his experience working alongside the accused. Staub says he'd seen plenty of worn parts on the aging Boeing 727s he serviced at Sea-Tac Airport. But one day in April 1999, he was frightened to discover a critical control cable almost severed and ready to snap on a cargo plane about to depart for Anchorage—and the damage appeared to be intentional. A shaken Staub reported the incident to his employer.
Staub, through e-mail correspondence with Seattle Weekly, says his superiors at Kitty Hawk concluded that the cable damage he discovered was the result of normal wear. Staub says he wondered if they "could really be that dumb. I know what rusty cables and broken strands and normal wear around pulleys look like. There was only one remaining strand on this cable that wasn't cut." However, company officials were apparently more concerned than they let on. Staub says he was transferred to Venezuela for a month, presumably to eliminate him as a suspect. The U.S. attorney's complaint says that Trusty caused damage on that same aircraft four more times over the next two weeks.
In August 1999, the FBI questioned Trusty, who at first denied involvement but then, according to an agent's report, admitted to 10 cases of tampering. Trusty later recanted his confession, saying he only gave it so FBI agents would let him go. He pleaded not guilty to all 10 counts on Wednesday. His lawyer, Leslie Hagin of McNaul Ebel Nawrot Helgren & Vance, says her client has no further comment on the charges.
FBI AGENTS REPORT in court documents that it took only a few months from that first incident in April to narrow the list of possible saboteurs down to Trusty. But Trusty was not arrested until nearly two years after his alleged confession. The U.S. attorney's office did not return phone calls seeking the reasons for the delay. Trusty has apparently been living with his parents in Granbury, Texas, where his father, a retired Delta Airlines pilot, builds and flies experimental aircraft.
The case and any resulting publicity could not come at a worse time for Trusty's former employer, Kitty Hawk AirCargo, a major air freight carrier that filed for bankruptcy in May 2000 and could be headed for auction if a judge doesn't approve its restructuring plan this month. Trusty's lawyers will no doubt question the company's maintenance procedures and safety record if the U.S. attorney's case comes to trial. Kitty Hawk's reputation for safety is good, if not exemplary, says Bob Dahl of the Seattle-based Air Cargo Management Group. The Federal Aviation Administration is reluctant to make qualitative judgments about companies' records, but the agency's database shows Kitty Hawk has reported 26 in-flight malfunctions in the past 10 years, none of them serious, but some requiring aborted flights. In one instance, the crew dumped its fuel and returned home because the ground crew left duct tape covering the tube that registers air speed. In another case, an oil tank valve was left open, forcing the crew to shut down an engine. The FAA has taken enforcement action to correct maintenance problems 40 times since 1990, with four decisions still pending. Kitty Hawk corporate offices in Dallas did not return a call from Seattle Weekly.