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S P E C I A L TWA Flight 800: The Crash and Investigation

Couple pleads not guilty to stealing TWA 800 wreckage

James and Elizabeth Sanders
James Sanders and wife, Elizabeth, a former TWA flight attendant   
January 20, 1998
Web posted at: 11:52 p.m. EST (0452 GMT)

From Correspondent Christine Negroni

UNIONDALE, New York (CNN) -- A couple accused of stealing wreckage from the investigation site of TWA Flight 800 pleaded not guilty in federal court Tuesday.

Journalist James Sanders and his wife, Elizabeth, a flight attendant with TWA, are charged with felony theft for allegedly obtaining a swatch of seat fabric from the closely guarded hanger where the Boeing 747 was being reconstructed last spring.

The Paris-bound flight crashed shortly after it took off from New York on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people on board.

The plane's center fuel tank exploded, but the cause of the blast remains unclear, and the National Transportation Safety Board isn't expected to release a probable cause for at least several months. The FBI has concluded the crash was not the result of a criminal act.

Sander's book
James Sanders wrote "The Downing of TWA Flight 800," claiming the plane was brought down by a missile   

Even with the charges pending against him, Sanders remains committed to his theory that the government is covering up the accidental firing of a Navy missile at TWA Flight 800.

His efforts to prove his point made headlines last March. Sanders, who was a police officer before he became a writer, tested seat fabric from the wreckage and claimed it showed residue of what could have been missile fuel.

James Kallstrom, the former assistant director of the FBI who was involved in the crash investigation, has vehemently denied Sanders' claim.

"It's not rocket fuel. It never was rocket fuel, and it never will be rocket fuel," he said.

In December, Sanders, his wife, and Terrell Stacy, a TWA pilot assigned to assist in the crash investigation, all were charged with stealing the material from the hangar where the plane was being reconstructed.

wreckage
James and Elizabeth Sanders were charged with stealing materials from the hangar in which the plane was being reconstructed   

Stacy accepted a plea bargain and is expected to testify against Sanders and his wife. Sanders is planning a defense strategy based on the First Amendment.

"I can't believe that any responsible journalist would not take the step and test the Constitution and take the material and have it analyzed," said Jeffrey Schlanger, Sanders' attorney.

Sanders and his attorney insist the case is no different from others in which journalists base reports on restricted material. But one expert on free press issues says the First Amendment protects the right to publish but does not grant access to private or government property.

Mary Cheh of Georgetown University Law School said the government's case against James and Elizabeth Sanders alleges that they stole government property.

"That makes it an entirely different sort of a case," she said.

 
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TWA Flight 800

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