The fraud and conspiracy trial of three executives of a defunct Florida air charter company took an unexpected twist Friday when a federal judge threw out the case against one of the men.
U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh took the rare step of granting a defense motion to dismiss the charges against Brien McKenzie, saying the prosecution didn't prove its case against him. The defense rested its case Friday, and closing arguments for the other two defendants were scheduled for Monday.
"We knew we were innocent from the start," McKenzie said. "It feels like the world's been lifted off my shoulders."
McKenzie, the former head of maintenance for Fort Lauderdale-based Platinum Jet Management, had been on trial with company co-founders Michael and Paul Brassington. They were charged along with four others last year with conspiracy to defraud and lying to authorities. Michael Brassington also is charged with endangering the safety of an aircraft.
A 2005 crash at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport prompted an investigation into the company, whose clients included entertainment celebrities such as Jay-Z, Beyonce, Celine Dion, Burt Reynolds, Luciano Pavarotti, Jon Bon Jovi and Keith Richards.
Prosecutors allege Platinum knowingly violating numerous rules for commercial charters, and purposely misstated the weights of planes to load up on cheap fuel. The Teterboro crash was caused by an excess of fuel that put the plane's center of gravity too far forward, they contend.
The charter carrying 11 people went off the runway on takeoff at Teterboro on Feb. 2, 2005, and hurtled across a busy intersection, striking two cars, crashing into a warehouse and causing a fire. Twenty people were injured, four seriously.
Attorney Mark Berman's defense focused on the contention that McKenzie's job didn't give him responsibility for listing information on the planes' weight, balance or fueling.
"This case never should have been brought by the government against Brien McKenzie," Berman said outside court. "The government didn't want to listen, but we're thankful the judge did, and we're confident the jury would have reached the same conclusion."
As testimony closed Friday, defense attorneys sought to show that the failure of the plane's steering mechanism caused the crash, rather than its weight or center of gravity.
The endangerment charge against Michael Brassington is the most serious and carries a 20-year maximum sentence.