Author gets probation for conspiring to steal airline seat fabric
NEW YORK–A federal judge in Uniondale sentenced investigative journalist James Sanders and his wife, Elizabeth, to probation and community service in mid-July after their conviction for conspiring to steal seat materials from the remains of TWA Flight 800.
James Sanders was sentenced to three years probation and 50 hours of community service, while his wife was sentenced to one year of probation along with 25 hours of community service. They had both been convicted in April of stealing evidence from a civil aircraft crash site or wreckage.
The Sanderses were convicted under a statute that makes it a crime to remove, conceal or withhold parts of a civilian aircraft involved in an accident.
James Sanders wrote in his 1997 book, “The Downing of TWA Flight 800,” that the U.S. military had mistakenly shot down the commercial airliner off of Long Island with a missile.
The freelance investigative writer attempted to corroborate his story with fabric swatches taken from seats of the plane after the wreckage had been reassembled by a team of government officials charged with investigating the crash. Sanders had the seat fabric swatches tested, and he claimed that the tests showed that a reddish- orange substance was consistent with missile fuel residue.
However, prosecutors alleged that to get the seat fabric, Sanders conspired with his wife and former TWA pilot Terrell Stacey to have Stacey steal the fabric from the site of the ongoing federal investigation into the crash. Sanders’ wife also worked for TWA, as a flight attendant and flight attendant instructor.
Sanders claims that Stacey handed over the seat fabric swatches without any prompting. As a result, Sanders argued that he did not commit any crime by simply accepting the fabric swatches.
Stacey was the primary government witness against the Sanderses after he accepted a deal with the federal prosecutors where he agreed to testify and plead guilty to a misdemeanor in exchange for the dropping of more severe charges.
The Sanderses’ attorney, Bruce Maffeo, insisted that the Sanderses had a First Amendment newsgathering right to receive the swatches in order to expose what he said was a government cover-up. Maffeo insisted that the Sanderses did not do anything wrong by trying to determine the cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800, which he pointed out remains unsolved after three years. (U.S. v. Sanders; Media Counsel: J. Bruce Maffeo, New York)