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Man Sues, Saying Victim of Plane Crash Was Son

Los Angeles

Courts: The plaintiff says his ex-lover and their child were aboard. Pilot negligence is alleged.

March 09, 2002|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles man who says he is the father of one of the victims has filed a lawsuit in connection with the crash of a charter jet in Colorado a year ago that killed all 18 on board. Julius Szabo, 83, claims in the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court that pilots took unnecessary risks in attempting to land at the airport in Aspen during a nighttime snowstorm.

Cockpit recordings released by the National Transportation Safety Board show that the pilots were having trouble seeing the ground as the plane approached the airport, which is surrounded by steep, mountainous terrain.

The Gulfstream III jet, which failed to line up properly with the runway, slammed into a hillside and burst into flames.

Those killed, in addition to the two pilots and a flight attendant, included Robert Neu, a millionaire financier who had chartered the flight, and 14 of his friends and business associates.

Among them were Mario Aguilar, 26, of Los Angeles; and Aguilar's 56-year-old mother, Maria Valenzuela.

In interviews last year, Szabo told The Times that he met Valenzuela in the early 1970s, while both of them were working in the kitchen of a convalescent home in Los Angeles.

He was a 55-year-old Jewish bachelor who had escaped the Holocaust in 1939, fleeing from Romania and living in Israel before moving to Los Angeles in 1970. She was 25 and married, a Mexican immigrant from the state of Sonora.

Szabo said that when he met her, Valenzuela's marriage was troubled and she was unable to conceive. He said that in the months that followed, he and Valenzuela fell in love and he fathered a child, who was reared as Mario Aguilar by Valenzuela and her husband, whose surname was Aguilar.

Szabo said the boy grew up believing that the Romanian was merely a close, grandfatherly friend of the family.

When Mario Aguilar was 18, he was told that Szabo was his father. Szabo showed a reporter what he said was a letter written to him by Aguilar a few years later that read, in part: "I want you to know that there is no doubt in my mind that you are my father and that you have always loved me since I was born."

Valenzuela's husband died several years ago.

The Gulfstream III was making an instrument approach to Aspen last March, which meant that the pilots, Robert Frisbie and Peter Kowalczyk, were using their instruments to guide the plane to the airport.

However, even on an instrument approach, pilots are required to be able to see the ground before they touch down at Aspen.

At least one plane ahead of the Gulfstream abandoned its landing attempt because of the poor visibility.

In the suit filed Thursday, Szabo accuses Frisbie and Kowalczyk of willful negligence in attempting the late-evening flight in the worsening snowstorm.

"The pilots knew the weather was marginal before takeoff, and visibility continued to deteriorate, yet they took off anyway," said Szabo's lawyer, Brian J. Panish of Santa Monica. "They tried to beat the curfew and hurried a risky landing in Aspen to avoid the expense of getting detoured to a safer but less convenient airport."

The pilots are named as defendants in the suit, along with the plane's owner, Avjet Corp.; a charter company, Airborne Charter; and Cinergi Pictures Entertainment, a co-leaser of the plane. The suit does not make any specific request for damages.

Since the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration has banned nighttime instrument landings at Aspen.

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