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Hang-glider pleads guilty in death

A British Columbia hang-glider pilot whose failure to hook in his passenger caused a dramatic mid-air struggle, which ended with the woman falling 300 metres to her death, pleaded guilty Friday to criminal negligence.

William Jon Orders pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing the death of 28-year-old Lenami Godinez-Avila, who fell from Orders' hang-glider shortly after takeoff above BC's Fraser Valley on April 28, 2012.

Orders, 51, was also charged with obstruction of justice after he swallowed a memory card containing video of the incident. A prosecutor confirmed Friday that the Crown does not intend to proceed with that charge.

The Crown and defence both recommended a five-month sentence. Orders is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday.

Orders appeared in a BC Supreme Court room packed with Godinez-Avila's friends and family. The court heard an investigation by the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada concluded the woman's harness was not attached to the glider during takeoff.

The probe also found Orders did not perform a pre-launch safety check, even though he had taken a tandem re-certification course just weeks earlier.

"He didn't miss just one step; he missed several," said Crown lawyer Carolyn Kramer.

"Of course, key to all of that is if any one of those steps had been conducted, this incident would not have happened. This was a complete failure to comply with industry standards and complete aberration of his duties owed to passengers."

The tandem flight was an anniversary gift from Godinez-Avila's boyfriend, who also planned to fly with another pilot the same day. The couple drove from Vancouver to Agassiz, about 140 kilometres east of the city.

Police recovered video from the memory card that Orders swallowed. While the video was not shown in court, Kramer described its contents, revealing new details about what happened in the air.

The video shows Godinez-Avila initially positioned behind Orders before takeoff, said Kramer, but that changes as they take off.

"Various witnesses stated something was wrong from the start," Kramer said. "Ms. Godinez-Avila is not parallel to the hang-glider, she is hanging down in a vertical, standing position."

For 90 seconds, the video shows Godinez-Avila fighting to hold on Orders and to a horizontal bar used to control the glider, said Kramer.

Kramer said Orders can be seen trying to reach for a carabiner on the woman's harness to clip her to the glider, but to no avail. Orders then wraps his legs around Godinez-Avila to hold her up, but her hands slip off and she falls.

Orders landed the hang-glider two minutes later, and police and search and rescue were called, the court heard. Hours later, Orders confessed to a police officer that he had panicked and swallowed the memory card of a camera that was attached to the glider.

"The defendant stated he didn't know why he had done this and regretted his action as soon as he had done it," Kramer said.

Godinez-Avila's body was found later that night.

Orders was taken into custody and then to a hospital. The memory card passed through his system undamaged and police were able to watch what happened, Kramer said.

Godinez-Avila was a Mexican student who was working for B.C.'s Environment Ministry while completing a project management certificate at the University of British Columbia.

Kramer read out victim impact statements from Godinez-Avila's family and her boyfriend. Her father sat in the courtroom gallery, while her mother listened from a separate room with the help of an interpreter.

"The loss of a daughter is a special pain that can only be understood by those who have felt a similar sentiment before," said Kramer, reading from Godinez-Avila's father's statement.

"(Only) we, who have seen her growing ... her aspirations, triumphs, wishes, interest, failures, and see how she overcame her difficulties and obstacles in life, can comprehend her great absence. The pain will never disappear, we just have to learn to live with it."

Orders is a 18-year hang-gliding veteran from New Zealand who has won many competitions and is known for being a safe pilot, his lawyer, Jeff Campbell, told the court. He said Godinez-Avila's death was caused by a "brief lapse of attention."

"His failing to connect her harness, his launching with Ms. Godinez-Avila without her being connected is a substantial departure from the standard of care you'd expect from a reasonably prudent pilot," Campbell said.

"It was unintentional."

Campbell said Orders is remorseful, pointing out that he publicly apologized to Godinez-Avila's family and friends shortly after her death. The court heard Orders abandoned hang-gliding after the incident and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Orders, dressed in a black suit, addressed Godinez-Avila's family.

"I'm very sorry for what happened and your loss," he said, his voice trembling.

"I did tandem hang-gliding to make people proud of their accomplishments, that they may overcome fear of height, or live their dream of flying like a bird. All those previous flights mean nothing to me now."

Crown and defence lawyers submitted a joint proposal for a sentence of five months, followed by a probation order of three years that prohibits Orders from hang-gliding and orders him to educate others about what happened.

 

The Canadian Press

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