January 13, 2009
by Larisa Alexandrovna
New information surrounding the December plane crash which killed GOP internet consultant Michael Connell casts doubt on some of the rumors and speculation surrounding his death but doesn’t close the books on the circumstances surrounding the Republican technology star’s tragic end.
Michael Connell, a high-level IT guru for the Republican National Committee and the US Chamber of Commerce, died Dec. 19, 2008 at 5:53 PM ET when his airplane crashed near Ohio’s Akron-Canton airport.
Although there has been speculation in the media about the possibility of sabotage in Connell death, authorities do not suspect foul play. The official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has not yet determined the cause of the crash; their final report is required to be produced within a year.
Connell’s ten year-old, seven-passenger, single engine Piper Saratoga II crashed into an empty house on Charolais Street in Lake Township, Ohio. The plane’s right wing clipped a flagpole in the front yard before it broke up, set fire to the garage, and tumbled some 50–60 feet along the ground toward the back yard of a neighboring home.
Connell was thrown from the burning plane and killed instantaneously by massive blunt force trauma, according to the Stark County coroner’s report. Although the body was not burned, fingerprints were required to confirm identity, according to Captain Lorin Geisner of the Greentown Fire Department.
According to Geisner, Connell’s personal items recovered from the crash site included a passport, a driver’s license, a rosary and a laptop computer. The coroner’s office confirmed that these were among a longer list of personal effects collected by the authorities.
The Greentown Fire Department was alerted at 5:54 PM, just one minute after the crash, following 911 calls by area witnesses to central dispatch. At 5:58, according to Geisner, fire department units arrived on scene and suppressed both the garage and plane fires within several minutes.
Connell’s case has drawn particular attention because he had recently testified in a case alleging that Ohio’s votes were tampered with during the 2004 presidential election. However, Connell — who was compelled to testify — denied the allegations in his Nov. 3, 2008 deposition.
Connell is also alleged to have been involved with the scrubbing of emails from White House staff which had been sent through an alternate system hosted on Republican National Committee servers.
Information “Lockdown” — Details Withheld from Fire Department
Capt. Geisner expressed considerable frustration during several Raw Story interviews over what he alleges was the withholding of critical details by authorities.
“While en route to the fire, I asked dispatch to learn the size of the plane and the number of souls on board,” Geisner explained. “This was not provided us.”
Such details allow fire department officials to determine whether additional equipment is needed and if a wider search and rescue is required. Within fifteen minutes of the crash, after officials from Akron-Canton Airport had arrived on the scene, Geisner again sought to confirm the number of passengers.
“After calls were made I was told that the ATC [Air Traffic Control] was ‘all in lockdown,’ and that they said ‘we can’t release that information,'” Geisner said.
Todd Laps, Fire Chief of the Akron-Canton airport fire department and a liaison to the Transportation Security Administration and the Air Traffic Control, echoed Geisner’s account.
“I had some phone calls placed to see if I could get that number [of people on board]. It didn’t come in a timely enough fashion,” Laps said.
But Laps says that the words “lock down” were not used. When asked to clarify his earlier comments, Gaisner insisted that the words “lock down” had been used in reference to information.
“That info was not available,” Gaisner said. “It was secured — not given out — locked down.”
The North Canton Post of the State Highway Patrol received a call from the 911 call center at 6:04 PM EST.
According to the incident report prepared by the state highway patrol and examined by Raw Story on site, Sgt. Leo Shirkey was the first law enforcement officer on the scene at 6:22. Off duty Post Commander Lt. Eric Sheppard and Trooper McCarthy, a plain-clothed investigator from the Canton Post, arrived within an hour.
The incident report lists the Stark County Examiner Harry Campbell as arriving at 7:03 PM to collect the body.
Not mentioned in the report is the role of two members of the local Civil Air Patrol squadron. According to Lt. Sheppard and Captain Geisner, the Air Patrol was tasked to help locate and turn off the Emergency Locating Transmitter (ELT), which was still transmitting from the partially intact tail of the plane.
An FAA Aviation Safety Inspector arrived at the scene several hours later, and a clean up crew worked through the night to prepare the plane for transport and storage.
Connell on Re-Approach
According to a preliminary report authored by NTSB investigator Mitchell Gallo, Connell drifted left of course during a radio-vectored instrument approach to an Akron-Canton runway and air traffic controllers began to direct a re-approach. Before Connell could affect the re-approach, he declared an emergency and disappeared off radar.
The Akron-Canton Air Traffic Control declined to comment.
Gallo, however, told Raw Story that the declaration of emergency was not Connell’s final words. He would not elaborate but said that Connell did not describe the nature of the emergency.
Neither the radar data nor tapes of the radio transmissions have been released by the authorities to the general public or the media.
The only known eyewitness to the crash spoke to the Ohio State Highway Patrol but wished to remain unnamed in press accounts. This witness told Raw Story in December that he heard a very loud small plane engine seconds before seeing the lights of the plane emerge from the clouds heading nearly straight down.
“When the lights disappeared and the engine stopped I anticipated a crash but a couple of seconds went by before I heard the engine again, enough time for me to think, ‘he’s pulled up,'” the witness said. Moments later he heard the crash and saw an orange glow some distance from where he’d last seen the lights of the rapidly descending plane.
On Dec. 20, the plane wreckage was moved by Belden Village Towing to a hangar owned by Summit Aviation at Akron-Fulton International, a non-commercial airport which houses a large Lockheed Martin facility. The State Highway Patrol said that hangar space at nearby Akron-Canton Regional Airport was not available.
Raw Story visited Summit Aviation Dec. 24 and located the wreckage, which was being held in a building without gated security or security camera surveillance. NTSB officials had examined the wreckage the day before. Last week, Summit Aviation said that Connell’s insurance company had arranged for the transport of the plane to another longer term facility.
Allegations Relating to two Previous Flights
Since Connell’s tragic death, much confusion has resulted in speculation and erroneous reporting relating to two previously aborted flights.
On Dec. 21, for example, Channel 19, a local CBS affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio reported that an anonymous source had warned Connell not to fly and that two separate flights had been canceled
“Connell,” the reporter said, “was apparently told by a close friend not to fly his plane because his plane might be sabotaged. … And twice in the last two months, Connell, who is an experienced pilot, canceled two flights because of suspicious problems with his plane.”
The friend to whom this statement was attributed has not been identified. Raw Story has not been able to independently confirm that Connell had been warned specifically not to fly.
It’s also unclear if the reference to Connell canceling “two flights because of suspicious problems with his plane” was confused with one actual aborted flight and a second flight suspected to have been aborted, or if these cancellations are in addition to the those two flights.
One Aborted Flight Confirmed
On Sept. 18, 2008, just a day before a stay was lifted in the King Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Association v. Blackwell case – which alleged vote tampering in Ohio during the 2004 election – Connell embarked on a flight from the Akron-Canton airport. According to flight data obtained by Raw Story, he was heading to the College Park, MD airport, which he often used when attending meetings and functions in DC.
Connell’s trip lasted only 23 minutes before he turned around and returned to the Akron-Canton airport. (See flight data below):
King Lincoln Bronzeville
On Sept. 22, Connell was subpoenaed to testify in the King Lincoln Bronzeville case.
During a Sept. 25, 2008 meeting with Connell’s wife Heather near their home in Akron, Ohio, Ms. Connell explained to this reporter that her husband had aborted his Sept. 18 flight “due to engine trouble.” Ms. Connell also stated that her husband “then took a commercial flight instead” to make “his DC meeting.” She did not know with whom he was meeting in Washington.
Raw Story met with Ms. Connell several months prior to Connell’s death as part of another, but related investigation.
Neither Ms. Connell, nor anyone else close to her husband interviewed at that time, claimed that any tampering was involved or expressed suspicions about this flight. However, if Connell himself was suspicious, he might not have shared those suspicions with his wife.
Connell had not, apparently, shared with his wife the news that he’d been subpoenaed in King Lincoln Bronzeville Sept. 22.
Ms. Connell expressed shock at learning that her husband had been called to testify and expressed doubt when informed that her husband was a witness in a federal case.
“I don’t believe it,” Ms. Connell told Raw Story. “He is a good man. He has done nothing wrong.”
The case known as King Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Association v. Blackwell was initially filed against former Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell on Aug. 31, 2006 by Columbus attorney Clifford Arnebeck on behalf of several Ohio residents.
The original filing alleged that there had been civil rights violations by Blackwell during the 2004 election, involving racially discriminatory practices such as the selective purging of voters from the election rolls and the unequal allocation of voting machines to various districts. The filing asked for measures to be taken to prevent similar problems during the November 2006 election.
On Oct. 9, 2006, an amended complaint was filed that added various forms of ballot-rigging as also having the effect of “depriving the Plaintiffs of their voting rights.” A motion to dismiss the case as moot was filed following the November 2006 election, but instead it was stayed to allow for settlement discussions. That stay was later extended, and the case dragged on for almost two years for lack of detailed evidence.
Connell’s lawyers fought the subpoena and refused to furnish the plaintiffs with IT network schematics relating to the 2004 and 2006 elections.
His attorneys asserted that the request for documents was burdensome because the information sought should be “readily ascertainable through public records request” – but also, paradoxically, because “it seeks confidential, trade secrets, and/or proprietary information” that “have independent economic value” and “are not known to the public, or even to non-designated personnel within or working for Mr. Connell’s business.”
In calling for the judge to compel Connell to testify, plaintiffs cited recent security breaches in the computer system at the office of Ohio’s Secretary of State, which were preceded by a barrage of threatening phone and email messages and death threats and which led to the state website temporarily being taken down Oct. 20. The plaintiffs used these events to suggest the possibility of Trojan horses or back doors in the system, which Connell had designed.
In addition, the plaintiffs’ attorneys provided information of alleged threats against Connell. These alleged threats and the alleged threats against the Ohio Secretary of State, resulted in the court issuing another subpoena compelling Connell’s testimony. The second subpoena was served Oct. 8 at the College Park Airport office when Connell flew in for the day for a meeting in DC.
On Nov. 3, 2008, Connell was finally deposed in the case.
It is uncertain what, if anything, Connell was prepared to confirm relating to alleged threats against him. Sources close to the case said that even if Connell had denied being threatened under oath, he would have had good reason to do so.
That part of the testimony is still sealed. Connell’s attorneys have not commented and forwarded all inquires to Ms. Connell.
Second Possible Aborted Flight — Unconfirmed
On November 21, roughly three weeks after Connell’s court testimony, a second flight appears to have been aborted. Unlike the Sept. 18 flight, there is no confirmation. The flight lasted 10 minutes before Connell turned his plane around.
As with the earlier aborted flight, Connell returned to the Akron-Canton Regional airport after a short time in the air. There has been no confirmation that this second flight was interrupted due to any suspicions on Connell’s part or any issues around the plane itself.
If this second flight was aborted, it may have been due to the alleged previous engine troubles that Mrs. Connell mentioned. On the other hand, a close friend of Connell’s who wished to remain unnamed explained that Connell could have simply taken someone for a ride that day or had a meeting, which was not uncommon.
It’s this flight, however, that caused talk among Connell’s friends and family after his death, because no explanation has been provided as to if and why the flight was aborted.
Radar data shows almost a perfect circle, which bolsters the theory that Connell was taking someone for a ride.
The Nov. 21 flight was the last flight Connell made prior to his Dec. 19 crash.
Larisa Alexandrovna is managing editor of investigative news for Raw Story and regularly reports on intelligence and national security stories. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.