It was one of the worst air disasters in Florida history — and Mauro Ociel Valenzuela fled. That was probably a mistake.
Valenzuela was one of three maintenance workers indicted on charges of not properly sealing the oxygen canisters that exploded and caused a ValuJet DC-9 to plunge on fire into the Everglades with 110 people aboard.
At trial, SabreTech maintenance manager Danny Gonzalez and worker Eugene Florence were acquitted.
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“I think he made a mistake” by leaving, said Jane Moscowitz, Valenzuela’s attorney when he fled. “We believed all along they would be acquitted. We didn’t think they were the cause of the accident.”
At trial, the defense attorneys argued that the SabreTech workers had thrown away the deadly canisters, and that ValuJet workers had loaded them on the plane, anyway. Jurors heard the argument and set the men free.
Still, on Wednesday, on the 20th anniversary of the disaster, the FBI once again released Valenzuela’s photo, saying that in addition to charges of lying to the federal government and causing hazardous materials to be transported, he’s wanted for resisting a lawful order from a federal court in Miami and for failing to appear at trial.
The FBI declined to comment Wednesday. But according to an agency press release, “Valenzuela is currently 47 years old. He may be in Chile under a false identity. He also has ties to Georgia.”
It’s not the first time federal agents informed the public that they were looking for Valenzuela. It made news when the trial began before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in 1999. And his disappearance made headlines again in 2011 when he made an FBI most wanted-list because the federal Environmental Protection Agency wanted him for environmental crimes. In 1999, he was featured on America’s Most Wanted.
On May 11, 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 took off from Miami International Airport and crashed into the Everglades a few minutes later, killing everyone aboard, 105 passengers and five crew members.
Three years later, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida filed a 24-count indictment against SabreTech and the three workers. With Valenzuela absent, the jury spent several weeks listening to arguments before acquitting Gonzalez and Florence.
SabreTech was acquitted on conspiracy charges but found guilty on nine other counts. An appeals court later tossed all but one of the counts, the improper training of employees.
The tragedy was too much for both SabreTech and ValuJet. Both companies eventually disappeared.