Hang-glider pilot sentenced to 5 months in jail over fatal tandem accident in B.C.
Vivian Luk, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, February 11, 2014 2:15PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 11, 2014 11:32PM EST
CHILLIWACK, B.C. -- A veteran British Columbia hang-glider pilot sentenced to jail after his passenger plummeted 300 metres to her death should never have missed several fundamental steps during a pre-launch safety check, a judge said Tuesday.
William Jon Orders, 51, received a five-month jail sentence for criminal negligence causing death.
Lenami Godinez Avila, 28, died on April 28, 2012, after she fell during a tandem flight across B.C.'s Fraser Valley.
The court heard Orders didn't hook Godinez-Avila to the glider and also failed to conduct several tasks during a required safety check before launching. After he landed, he swallowed a memory card containing video of the incident.
Had Orders performed those safety checks, Godinez-Avila's family would have been spared the heartbreak they now endure, said B.C. Supreme Court Judge Brian Joyce.
"I do not accept the suggestion made ... that what occurred here was merely a momentary loss of attention," Joyce told the court.
"There is a clearly established procedure that is to be followed in conducting a tandem hang-gliding flight. ... Mr. Orders failed to do all of these things."
Godinez-Avila was from Mexico and had lived in Canada for 10 years. She was working for B.C.'s Environment Ministry while studying at the University of British Columbia. The hang-gliding adventure was meant to be a celebration of Godinez-Avila's anniversary with her boyfriend.
Her father, Miguel Godinez, who was in court to watch the proceedings, said the sentence didn't go far enough.
"I think it was a very light sentence," he told reporters outside the courthouse in Chilliwack, east of Vancouver. "I don't think any father in the world -- any parent -- would stand for this situation."
After Godinez-Avila fell from the glider, Orders landed the aircraft and swallowed a memory card containing video of the incident. He was charged with obstruction of justice, but the charge was dropped by the Crown.
During a court hearing last Friday, the Crown described the contents of the video, which was not shown.
The video starts with Orders and Godinez-Avila taking off from the mountainside.
Shortly after, it becomes obvious that Godinez-Avila's harness was not hooked onto the glider, the court heard. The footage shows her clinging desperately onto Orders and the hang-glider while Orders attempts to clip her in, but she slips off and falls.
Defence lawyer Jeff Campbell told the court last week that Orders was distracted by a number of things prior to the launch, including an argument with his assistant earlier in the day and by his new video camera, which was attached to the hang-glider.
But the judge said Orders, who was a hang-gliding instructor, was expected to be vigilant at all times.
"Mr. Orders was a well-trained, experienced pilot who is expected to work through these kinds of distractions," the judge said.
"Connecting Ms. Godinez-Avila was a fundamental step in the procedure, not a minor step that should be overlooked because of these kinds of distractions."
After the incident, Orders apologized to Godinez-Avila's family and friends for his role in her death, and he apologized again in court last week.
Joyce said Orders' remorse is "genuine and deeply felt." He also noted Orders' failure to connect Godinez-Avila was unintentional, and that his guilty plea allowed Godinez-Avila's family to avoid the pain of having to watch the video of her last moments.
"While the result of Mr. Orders' negligence could not be more tragic, I accept submissions of counsel his moral culpability is at the lower end of the spectrum," Joyce said.
Outside court, Crown counsel Carolyn Kramer said the jail sentence doesn't change the wide shadow the case has cast over two families.
"The family, they lost somebody they clearly loved. Those gut-wrenching victim impact statements were amazing and they are just so sad," she said.
"The spillover to Mr. Orders and his family, and then the community at large -- it's just very tragic."
Orders, who has 18 years of hang-gliding experience, had taken a tandem re-certification course just weeks before the accident.
Court heard Orders, a New Zealand citizen, has since given up hang-gliding and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He had applied to be a Canadian citizen, but the court heard his application would likely be rejected due to his criminal conviction.
Campbell said his client is remorseful.
"As you know, he apologized immediately in public and he has apologized again in court and through his guilty plea," Campbell said after the sentence was handed out.
"I expect that he is relieved that the whole process, at least in court, is over."