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California and the West

Paternity Claims Against Air Crash Victims Dismissed

February 07, 2001|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A court commissioner on Tuesday threw out the paternity claims of two Guatemalan girls allegedly fathered by victims of last year's Alaska Airlines disaster after DNA tests showed the children were not the men's offspring.

Attorneys said the children were eligible for potential multimillion-dollar settlements from the airline as well as a portion of the men's estates.

The ruling caps a year of anguish for the men's family members who had mounted a costly, international investigation to clear their loved ones' names. It also delivers a serious blow to paternity claims filed against two other men who died in the crash.

David Russell, a Florida attorney handling the Guatemalan children's cases, now believes that all four claims are either false or suspect and that they were part of an elaborate scheme with roots in the Central American country. He said the false claims were based in part on birth certificates that were later determined to be forgeries.

"We are stunned," said Russell. "I'm embarrassed, but I'm angry."

The Guatemalan children were alleged to be the illegitimate offspring of four men--two from Washington, two from Northern California--who died in the waters off the Ventura County coast.

But the judge dismissed the Washington legal actions after reviewing the DNA evidence and a report from a court-appointed guardian that cast serious doubt on the claims.

David Clemetson, 40, a Seattle-area physician, was said to have had an affair with an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant and traveled to her country to deliver the child. The other Washington man, Terry Ryan, was accused of fathering a girl with a Zapatista rebel who later died in a battle with Mexican troops. Zapatista rebels are part of an anti-government movement from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

"We're glad that we are past this," said Andrew Clemetson, David's brother. "We all knew it was lies from the beginning."

The families, Clemetson said, will seek recovery of about $100,000 in expenses.

But the attorneys said they would fight having to pay the expenses because they were misled by shady contacts in Guatemala and were also victims of the scheme.

"It's obvious that some people in Guatemala cooked up some schemes and enlisted the cooperation of some people," said Harold Fardal, a Washington attorney representing the children. "Certainly the families are entitled to recover from somebody. But the persons they are most entitled to recover from probably don't have anything to pay them with."

Russell, the Florida attorney, said he would not proceed on the paternity claims involving the Northern California men. Other attorneys involved in those cases are likely to withdraw, he said.

A Newport Beach attorney who filed a separate claim on behalf of the girl alleged to be Clemetson's child was unavailable for comment.

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