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DISPATCH FROM BOGOTA

Slain U.S. pilot may be honored

Part of the U.S. Embassy in Colombia is expected to be renamed for the contractor, who was killed by rebels.

September 24, 2008|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — The renaming of a U.S. Embassy wing here in honor of a pilot killed by leftist rebels five years ago is expected to add a poignant postscript to the rescue of his three passengers by Colombian commandos in July.

The 2009 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill coming to a vote soon in Congress contains an amendment by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) proposing that a section of the bunker-like embassy be renamed in honor of Thomas Janis. Passage is likely.

"Tom Janis saved our lives," said rescued defense contractors Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell in a statement e-mailed to The Times in support of the proposed honor. "He was exceptionally brave. . . . Tom Janis is a hero."

Janis, 56, was working for Northrop Grumman when the plane he was piloting went down in the Colombian jungle. Rebels killed him and captured his companions.

Northrop Grumman was under contract to the Pentagon's Southern Command to fly aerial surveillance missions for Plan Colombia, the U.S. aid program aimed at combating illegal drugs and terrorism.

Janis had retired in 1998 from the U.S. Army as a decorated chief warrant officer, having spent most of his career as a helicopter pilot and completing two tours in Vietnam. He had been flying as a contractor in Colombia for two years.

"We know Tom worked on very tough assignments, but our concern for his safety was tempered by the knowledge that he had so much experience as an aviator," said Janis' son, Michael, 31, who is training to become an Army chopper pilot like his father.

Janis was at the controls of the single-engine Cessna carrying the other three Americans, also Northrop Grumman contractors, and a Colombian intelligence sergeant when it crash-landed in southeastern Caqueta state in February 2003.

The plane experienced engine failure at 17,000 feet, but Janis brought it down on what Stansell described as a "postage-stamp-sized" clearing in mountainous jungle.

All on board survived the crash, but rebels were patrolling nearby. Howes, Gonsalves and Stansell were taken prisoner and led away by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, within minutes. The rebels separated Janis and the sergeant, Luis Alcides Cruz, from the others and killed them execution-style near the wreckage.

Why Janis was slain remains a mystery. "What happened to Tom? Do you know why they killed him?" were among the first questions that Stansell, Howes and Gonsalves asked U.S. officials after Colombian troops rescued them this summer.

Various hypotheses have emerged: that Janis tried to intercede when rebels executed Cruz or, as another freed Colombian hostage has written, that he and the Colombian tried to escape. The other American captives have discounted the latter.

Then-hostage Stansell told a Colombian journalist whose video was aired on "60 Minutes" in October 2003 that the last time he saw Janis, the pilot and Cruz "had their hands up and they were being marched towards us."

After years of captivity in miserable conditions, Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell were rescued July 2 in an operation that also freed former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 Colombian police officers and soldiers. The operation involved an elaborate ruse in which Colombian armed forces disguised as rebels convinced the real rebels to put the hostages aboard a helicopter bound for a supposed meeting with FARC leadership.

In statements, Janis' family, his former colleagues, Shelby and U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said the renaming of the embassy wing would be an appropriate homage to a pilot who saved the lives of his passengers and whose sacrifice should not be forgotten.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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