He Protected His Source: Sanders’ Hangarman Ordeal

The guilty verdicts at U.S. District Court in Uniondale, L.I., against the writer James Sanders and his wife Elizabeth on April 13 hardly vindicate the Government’s decision to prosecute. The case was misbegotten from the start, an effort to quash criticism of the investigation of the Trans World Airlines Flight 800 crash.

Federal interest in the Sanderses began two years ago when the Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., ran a front-page story highlighting Mr. Sanders’ belief that a missile caused the crash in July 1996. Mr. Sanders based his statements on two pieces of foam bearing a suspicious red residue that a source, nicknamed “Hangarman,” had removed from the wreckage and which Mr. Sanders paid to have tested privately for explosive materials.

The Government threatened to indict Mr. Sanders if he did not name Hangarman. Mr. Sanders refused to give up his source. Next, the Government went after a T.W.A. employee, Lee Taylor. Her crime? Letting Mr. Sanders use her apartment to write a book on the crash. She signed an immunity agreement and gave the Feds Mr. Sanders’ computer. Then the Government subpoenaed Mr. Sanders’ phone records, which took them to Hangarman: Terrell Stacey, a longtime T.W.A. pilot who served in the investigation. Mr. Stacey copped a plea, and, on April 5, Mr. Sanders and his wife, a former T.W.A. stewardess, went on trial in Uniondale, L.I., for conspiring to take evidence.

Four skeletal 747 seats were carried into the court, and Captain Stacey took the stand. In monotones, he said he had taken the stuff off the seats because the investigation seemed off track. The F.B.I. was not sharing information with other parties. It seemed indifferent to testing the red residue. And the Government had specifically ordered an Air National Guard helicopter pilot who witnessed the crash from the air to stop using the word “missile” when he talked to the press.

“James Sanders did not create the pressure inside Terrell Stacey,” argued J. Bruce Maffeo, Mr. Sanders’ attorney. “The Government did. At every step of the way, he saw evidence being covered up, witnesses being told to forget. He wanted to find out the truth.”

Unfortunately for the Sanderses, their noble motivation was all but irrelevant to the legal issue of whether they conspired to remove the material, under a law aimed at souvenir-hunters. Evidently, the jury saw little choice but to convict. But the journalist and his wife have already suffered considerably. Mrs. Sanders lost her job as a trainer of flight attendants and had a negligible role in the matter-making two phone calls to Captain Stacey. The Sanderses have had to sell their house, cash out their 401(k). The F.B.I. identified the real crime when it said Mr. Sanders was trying to “rewrite the history” of the crash, whose cause is officially unexplained.

Years ago, there was glory in rewriting history and talking about Government cover-ups, but the discourse is now so complacent and sophisticated that Mr. Sanders’ beliefs seem in bad taste. No one in the press community has embraced him despite the obvious First Amendment issue. No, his case smacks of nutdom. He is a conservative whose earlier books concerned POW’s, he gets support from Accuracy in Media. The New York Times called Mr. Sanders a “self-styled freelance investigative journalist” and said the courtroom gallery teems with “conspiracy theorists.”

What the gallery teems with is independent-minded people who buy the missile theory (and, yes, a few moonbeams).

Young Tom Stalcup blew off classes to drive up from Tallahassee, Fla., where he is a graduate student in physics. He wore the same beaten black loafers to court for five days. Graeme Sephton, an electrical engineer, drove down from Massachusetts with a pot of oatmeal on the passenger seat and a sticker on the bumper, “End Racist Death Penalty,” then crashed in Mr. Stalcup’s hotel room. Raymond Lawrence, a minister who directs pastoral services at Presbyterian Hospital, trained out from Manhattan to cover the trial for his iconoclastic journal, Contra Mundum .

I mention these three because they come from the left-a hopeful sign to me that the counterestablishment, so rife with right-wingers, is at last becoming ecumenical.

But what everyone in the gallery shares is outrage over the Government’s misrepresentation of scores if not hundreds of eyewitnesses who saw a streaking object many of them compared to a flare going up from the water toward a plane. At the one public hearing held by the National Transportation Safety Board, no eyewitness testimony was allowed. Meantime, Mr. Sephton, Mr. Stalcup and a handful of other investigators with technical credentials have conducted a shadow investigation.

Their discussion takes place largely on the Net, and the mainstream media ignore them. The feeling is mutual. The day The Times dismissed him as a conspiracy theorist, I handed Mr. Stalcup the article. He glanced at it and raised an eyebrow, then put it aside indifferently to watch the trial.

A videotape was then playing, a tour of the hangar. The wreckage lay in blasted twisted piles. At the defense table, Mrs. Sanders quietly wept.