A veteran B.C. hang-glider pilot sentenced to jail after his passenger plummeted 300 metres to her death should never have missed several fundamental steps during a prelaunch 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 Mr. Orders didn’t hook Ms. 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 Mr. Orders performed those safety checks, Ms. 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,” Judge 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.”
Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Godinez-Avila fell from the glider, Mr. 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 Ms. Orders and Mr. Godinez-Avila taking off from the mountainside.
Shortly after, it becomes obvious that Ms. Godinez-Avila’s harness was not hooked onto the glider, the court heard. The footage shows her clinging desperately onto Mr. Orders and the hang-glider while Mr. Orders attempts to clip her in, but she slips off and falls.
Defence lawyer Jeff Campbell told the court last week that Mr. Orders was distracted by a number of things before 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Orders apologized to Ms. Godinez-Avila’s family and friends for his role in her death, and he apologized again in court last week.
Judge Joyce said Mr. Orders’s remorse is “genuine and deeply felt.” He also noted Mr. Orders’s failure to connect Ms. Godinez-Avila was unintentional, and that his guilty plea allowed the family to avoid the pain of having to watch the video of her last moments.
“While the result of Mr. Orders’s negligence could not be more tragic, I accept submissions of counsel [that] his moral culpability is at the lower end of the spectrum,” Judge Joyce said.
Mr. 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,” Mr. Campbell said after the sentence was handed out.
“I expect that he is relieved that the whole process, at least in court, is over.”