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Thu, May 24, 2007

Pilot In Fatal '82 MT Accident Gets Suspended Sentence

Prosecutor Expresses Regret To Victim's Family

Twenty-five years after his girlfriend died in a plane crash in a Montana lake, Jerry Ambrozuk was sentenced Monday to a 10-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to criminal mischief and criminal endangerment in connection with the death of Dianne Babcock.

Ambrozuk, who has been living under the assumed name of Michael Smith in Plano, TX since 1982, told a US district court he had tried to save her before swimming ashore with a duffel bag and disappearing.

The sentence will be served concurrently for both counts, with credit for time already served in jail.

Originally charged with negligent homicide, prosecutors agreed to drop that charge -- and one of theft, related to the rented Cessna 150 -- in a plea bargain with Ambrozuk last week, according to the Vancouver Sun.

As ANN reported, it all started on August 22, 1982 when a 19-year old Ambrozuk and his 18-year old girlfriend, Dianne Babcock -- both Canadians -- took off from the airport in Penticton, British Columbia, headed for Vancouver.

The couple ended up over Montana, which Ambrozuk said was part of a plan to elope with Babcock. The plane then crashed into Little Bitterroot Lake in Flathead County. Phone calls to a friend indicated Ambrozuk planned to ditch the rented C-150 in the lake, after which he and Babcock would swim free of the wreckage and disappear to start new lives in the US, but Ambrozuk maintained Babcock's seatbelt had jammed and there was just no way he could get her out.

But several authorities, who've been pondering this case for more than two decades... say they think Ambrozuk planned the whole thing just the way it turned out.

"We didn't really believe we would find the plane in Bitterroot Lake," one of those officers, Sheriff Jim Dupont, told the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake newspaper, adding neighbors hadn't reported a plane crashing into the lake.

That was before they found evidence of a campfire on the shore of the lake, however. In the ashes of that fire, they found a gust lock and microphone cable from the Cessna. They also found a waterproof bag tied to a rope not far from the campfire.

They searched the lake bed for days... finally finding the wreckage, and the young woman's body, 220 feet below the surface. And no... they say... her seatbelt wasn't jammed.

"It still bothers me that he had an opportunity, not only after the crash, but for the next 24 years" to come forward, Dupont said. "If it happened the way he said it did, then why didn't he come forward?"

His lawyer, Chuck Watson, said Ambrozuk was not a strong swimmer, and used the duffel bag containing the couple's money merely to get to shore. He then spent the next 24 years living under the assumed name in Texas, starting a software company and living a comfortable life.

Watson said the bag had ended up in the water during the impact.

"He didn't make any effort to get anything out of the plane except Dianne," Watson said. "This idea that he took the money and left her to die is a fantasy."

Ambrozuk isn't a free man just yet. He remains in custody pending a federal sentencing on charges he held a fraudulent U.S. passport. Watson said deportation to his native British Columbia is likely once he has served his time which could be eight to 14 months in a detention center.

Prosecutor Ed Corrigan said he accepted Ambrozuk's plea bargain, because he was satisfied he never intended to hurt Babcock... but he also feels he let down the Babcocks, who can't believe their daughter willingly ran off with Ambrozuk in the first place.

FMI:  Read The NTSB Report Here

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