A private pilot who flew within half a mile of President Reagan's helicopter over his Santa Barbara ranch was convicted Monday of making false statements to government investigators when he made up a story about having trouble with his contact lenses.
U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real found Ralph Myers, an Army private assigned to Ft. Lewis, Wash., guilty of lying to investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and Secret Service who questioned him after the Aug. 13, 1987, incident.
Myers, 32, admitted straying into a small portion of the prohibited airspace above the President's ranch, but insisted the intrusion was inadvertent and claimed he never posed a threat to Reagan.
His lawyers argued that his statements to investigators claiming his passenger had taken the controls of the plane while he removed his contact lenses were made as a hasty defense for an offense he had not realized he committed.
"Think about what anyone might say if someone suddenly told them, 'You almost killed the President of the United States,' " said Marc Goldstein, one of Myers' attorneys.
Manuel Araujo, the lawyer who argued for Myers' acquittal Monday, said the case should provide a warning for others.
"Every individual who's approached by the government, they'd better make sure that they're very calm, that they keep their mouth shut," Araujo said. "In other words, you cannot be a human being in front of the government. You'd better be cold as a dead fish . . . because anything you say may turn into criminal liability. That's the danger of this kind of case."
The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. George B. Newhouse Jr., said the FAA, had it believed "Mr. Myers' ridiculous story," would have been impaired in carrying out its investigation of the incident.
Newhouse also argued that Myers could not claim his right to protection against self-incrimination in his statements to FAA investigators because the agency was not conducting a criminal investigation, but merely an inquiry about whether to revoke his pilot's license.
"If he would have said this (the flight over the Reagan ranch) was the easiest, straightest route from Lompoc to Santa Barbara . . . he would not have implicated himself in any crime," Newhouse said. "But he lied about it to the FAA, and he then lied about it to the Secret Service."
An administrative hearing is scheduled for Wednesday to determine whether the FAA's emergency order revoking Myers' pilot's license should remain in effect.
Real set sentencing in the criminal case for March 7. Myers could receive a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.