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Tuesday, May 11, 1999 Published at 04:54 GMT 05:54 UK

World: Americas

Cable car disaster pilot jailed

Twenty died when the cable car plunged to the valley floor

A US Marine pilot has been jailed for six months and dismissed, for helping hide a video shot during a flight in which 20 people died, when his jet clipped a gondola cable in Italy.

Captain Richard Ashby, 32, was also ordered to forfeit all pay and allowances, while he serves his sentence for obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to obstruct.

[ image: Ashby was aquitted of involuntary manslaughter]
Ashby was aquitted of involuntary manslaughter
In closing arguments, prosecutors asked the jury to send Ashby to prison, while defence attorney Captain Jon Shelburne asked the jurors to put themselves in Ashby's position and recall mistakes they had made.

The jury deliberated for around two hours before the verdict was delivered.

Stephen Sackur says it is not clear how the verdict will be received in Italy
Ashby was acquitted in March of 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

That verdict provoked outrage in Italy and led to demands that Americans be banned from Nato air bases in Italy.

Ashby was at the controls of an EA-6B Prowler anti-radar jet which cut the cable on 3 February 1998, at Cavalese, Italy.

Susan Flory reports on the accident and the trial
Twenty people died when the gondola crashed 370ft to the ground.

Navigator dismissed

The jet's navigator, Captain Joseph Schweitzer, 31, pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and was dismissed from the service.

The videotape was shot from the cockpit of the Prowler during part of the flight by Schweitzer.

After landing the jet at the Nato air base in Aviano, Ashby removed the video.

He testified that he later gave the tape to Schweitzer at the navigator's request. Schweitzer said he later threw it on a bonfire.

The navigator himself earlier pleaded guilty to identical charges over the destruction of the tape and was dismissed. Manslaughter charges against him were dropped after Ashby was acquitted in March.

Schweitzer said he had destroyed the tape because it contained footage of his smiling face taken before the accident - pictures that he feared would be embarrassing if shown alongside images of the ski-lift tragedy.

Investigators never saw what was on the tape, but Ashby and Schweitzer maintained that it had not contained any incriminating information.

However prosecutors argued that the pair had disposed of the tape to obstruct the investigation.

Ashby was accused during the manslaughter trial of flying too low and too fast when his jet sliced through the cable.

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