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Fugitive mechanic in 1996 ValuJet crash 'never should have been charged,' lawyer says


By Lisa J. Huriash, Sun Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.

Authorities say an airline mechanic connected to ValuJet Flight 592, one of South Florida's most notorious plane crashes, has eluded them for about two decades.

He went on the run - far from the courthouse where two colleagues were acquitted of the same criminal charges. And far from his lawyers, who were stunned he fled.

Now, almost 22 years after the crash, the FBI has thrust Mauro Ociel Valenzuela-Reyes back in the spotlight, offering a $10,000 reward for his capture.

Even all these years later, it's clear that Valenzuela-Reyes's decision to vanish was "unfortunate," says Jane Moscowitz, his lawyer when he disappeared in 1999.

But, "I have no criticism of a guy in that sort of emotional crisis."

Last week, the FBI offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of Mauro Ociel Valenzuela-Reyes, a mechanic who authorities allege played a role in a deadly 1996 plane crash.

Valenzuela-Reyes, who worked for ValuJet Airlines' maintenance contractor, SabreTech, was one of several people to become embroiled in the legal fallout from the deadly air disaster. The 1996 crash on Mother's Day weekend killed all 110 passengers and crew members on board.

The plane took off from Miami International Airport, and a fire happened in its cargo area soon after. The plane plunged into the Everglades while trying to make an emergency return to Miami.

Federal investigators blamed the fire on improperly stored cargo. Officials had alleged maintenance contractor SabreTech improperly prepared, labeled and packaged the oxygen-generating canisters believed to have caused the crash.

Valenzuela-Reyes was one of three mechanics charged in the case. But the two other mechanics - Eugene Florence and Danny Gonzalez - were acquitted of similar charges.

Moscowitz successfully handled Florence's victory, and she was Valenzuela-Reyes' attorney from the time of the crash till the indictments until her husband took over his case.

"I think if he had gone to trial, he'd have been acquitted on the same grounds Eugene Florence and Danny Gonzalez were acquitted," she said. "They never should have been charged; the outcome was correct."

After the jury verdict, Moscowitz said she was listening to the radio and the commentator said Valenzuela-Reyes "'must be kicking himself right now.' Everybody else got off."

In December 1999, a federal jury acquitted SabreTech of 14 of 23 charges. As part of that, Florence and Gonzalez were acquitted of all charges.

The jury forewoman told the Miami Herald that jurors found the individual defendants not guilty because they could find no evidence of intent to do wrong.

SabreTech was found guilty in December 1999 of eight federal criminal counts of recklessly causing hazardous materials to be transported aboard the plane and one count of failing to train employees in hazardous materials. But in 2001, a federal appellate court overturned most of the convictions.

Still to this day, the FBI alleges Valenzuela-Reyes had a role in the mishandling and packaging of oxygen generators that were placed in the DC-9's cargo hold. The generators, which were missing their required safety caps, ignited in the cargo area.

It surprised Moscowitz to hear there was a new reward out for him.

"It was like, 'What? It's how many years later?'" she said. "I wish they'd concentrate on something that would actually make me safer."

FBI Miami Special Agent Jacqueline Fruge has been involved in the investigation from the beginning.

Teams at the site of the plane wreckage spent nearly two months removing debris by hand and taking it to dry land aboard airboats.

Fruge helped to identify the remains of the plane's occupants and asked victims' families to provide personal items to get fingerprints. A baby album helped investigators identify one woman who was a young mother. Fingerprints in a playbook helped identify a football player.

The agency says it is not giving up the search for Valenzuela-Reyes.

"We've tried over the years to find him," Fruge said. "It bothers me. I've lived and breathed it for many, many years."

Not only is Valenzuela-Reyes facing the original charges, but additional federal charges were added in 2000 for fleeing and failing to appear at his trial.

"It's a crime to flee when you're on bond," Moscowitz said.

If he was ever caught, "I don't know if they would gear up an entire trial of the airplane case - they would have him on (an) escape charge.

"That's not hard to prove."

Moscowitz recalled that in 1999, life had become difficult for Valenzuela-Reyes. Not only was he facing federal charges, things weren't much better for him in his personal life: He had separated from his wife, there was a conflict with her about seeing his children, she said.

He "was in a very difficult emotional position" at the time, she said.

So when he fled, "I was shocked - except I knew he was so unhappy, particularly related to the children, but not completely shocked," she said. "I knew he was in crisis."

Valenzuela-Reyes will be turning 49 years old on Wednesday. The FBI said Valenzuela-Reyes has connections to Atlanta because that's where his ex-wife and children have resided.

Information about the reward money is also being circulated in Chile; the FBI said he has family in Santiago and could be there living under a false identity. He was born in La Calera, Chile.

"I feel very sorry for him," Moscowitz said of his current status as a fugitive. "He has this hanging over him forever."

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