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Sandinistas Plan Trial : Sherman Oaks Lawyer Defends Captured Flier

December 23, 1987|CLAUDIA PUIG | Times Staff Writer

The Sandinista government has decided to hold James Jordan Denby, an American farmer who was shot down over Nicaragua, and put him on trial for anti-Sandinista activities or violating Nicaraguan airspace, according to a Sherman Oaks attorney who volunteered to defend Denby.

The attorney, Robert C. Swanson, 39, a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, is a leader of a conservative group based in the San Fernando Valley that has launched a nationwide fund-raising drive for Denby's legal defense.

In a telephone interview from Managua, Swanson said a Sandinista prosecutor, Julio Cabrera, told him that Denby will go on trial in mid-January, although no formal charges have yet been filed against him.

Denby, 57, was piloting his Cessna 172 when he was shot down Dec. 6 and accused of violating Nicaraguan airspace.

Until now, the Nicaraguan government has not said whether Denby would be released or put on trial, but Sandinista Defense Minister Humberto Ortega has accused Denby of aiding the Contras.

Swanson said he has met with Denby twice since arriving in Managua Dec. 15. He said Denby has accepted him as his attorney. Two other American attorneys have also volunteered and may participate, he said.

According to Swanson, Denby is an "adventurous spirit" and "a romantic dreamer" who had never formulated a political opinion on the civil war in Nicaragua.

Owned Farm in Costa Rica

Denby, from Illinois, was flying to a farm he owns in Costa Rica when stormy weather forced him to fly over the coast of neighboring Nicaragua. Swanson said. He said that Denby had even filed a flight plan with Honduran aviation authorities in which he mentioned that he might fly over Nicaragua.

A Nicaraguan Defense Ministry spokeswoman said shortly after Denby's arrest that the private plane drew immediate suspicion because it was on an unauthorized flight over airspace frequently violated by the U. S.-backed Contras. Defense Minister Ortega alleged that Denby carried flight logs, maps, letters and other documents linking him to the Contras.

Swanson said he offered to represent Denby free when he learned that the farmer had no money to hire an attorney.

"There seemed like there was no one coming to the man's assistance," Swanson said.

"I don't like to see an innocent American citizen imprisoned somewhere else and I don't want him to become a political pawn, which I would believe he could easily become. I happen to love freedom, and I don't think a person ought to lose it without good cause."

Swanson, who has long been active in conservative Republican politics in Los Angeles, founded the Freedom Project, with headquarters in Sherman Oaks, in 1985.

Barry Marshall, director of the Freedom Project, has been raising money for Denby's defense, which Swanson estimates will cost "in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Marshall said in Sherman Oaks that he spoke on three radio talk shows and several national radio programs in the last two weeks, drawing about 1,500 letters and "a couple thousand dollars" in contributions.

The group sponsored a $100-a-plate dinner in February to raise money for the Contras, who are fighting to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government. Swanson said at the time that the group provided only "non-lethal assistance" to avoid violating federal weapons laws.

'Mystery, Revolution, Sex'

Swanson described Denby as a farmer who had encountered hard times in Illinois "and tried to seek his fortune in Argentina, Belize and Guatemala." He said Denby was writing a novel about "mystery, revolution, sex and intrigue in Central America.

"Mr. Denby is not the world's luckiest businessman," Swanson said.

"I see him essentially as a romantic dreamer who had a genuine love for the Latin culture, and a genuine love for the local Latin cantinas. That's where he spins a number of his yarns."

But the Nicaraguan government has alleged that Denby provided food to Contras on his farm and flew their wounded to hospitals. Defense Minister Ortega characterized him as "a big fish."

"He really is not even plankton," Swanson said.

"He had no connection with the U. S. government," Swanson said. "He had no active connection with the Contras ever. He had no serious political philosophy that I can detect. He just seems like a happy-go-lucky person with a romantic, adventurous outlook on life."

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