The Seattle Times
Fri, Nov 14 1997
MIAMI - Two scale models on the evidence table told the story: a menacing Russian-made fighter with six radar-guided missiles, and a tiny, unarmed propeller plane.
The family and friends of three men killed by Cuban fighter jets cringed and cried yesterday as a former federal crash investigator used the models to make his point: Cuba used excessive force when it shot down two civilian aircraft on Feb. 24, 1996, killing four Americans.
"At no time were these aircraft in Cuban territorial airspace," said Charles Leonard, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator and pilot.
Cuba violated international law and its own procedures by shooting down the unarmed planes, said Leonard, who was hired to investigate the shootdown by the families of the victims. They are seeking $79 million in damages from frozen Cuban accounts in the United States.
Cuban MiGs shot down the planes as the Americans patrolled the Florida Straits, looking for refugees trying to escape Cuba in rafts and small boats. Mario de la Pena, 24; Carlos Costa, 29; and Armando Alejandre, 45, were killed with Pablo Morales, who was not a U.S. citizen and is not covered under the law.
Cuba, which has claimed that the planes were downed because they violated its airspace, has refused to recognize U.S. jurisdiction.
A United Nations aviation panel ruled last year that the planes were shot down over international waters and Cuba violated international law.
Holding a model of a MiG fighter jet in one hand and a Cessna model that it dwarfed in the other, Leonard described the kills and the congratulations from Cuban air-traffic controllers after the smaller planes were downed.
He said the Cuban military and air-traffic controllers never warned the planes or tried to divert them from their southbound flight path, as required by international law.
Copyright 1997, The Seattle Times. All rights reserved.