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It was a hare-brained elopement scheme by a couple of local teenagers that turned tragically wrong, then became a mystery that captivated a continent.

Only now, nearly 25 years later, are the final pages being written in a drama akin to Romeo and Juliet, except one of the lovers survived.

Yesterday, in a Flathead County courtroom in Kalispell, Mont., British Columbia native Jerry Ambrozuk pleaded not guilty to a charge of negligent homicide in the long-ago death of his partner in the youthful escapade, Dianne Babcock.

And even that was a startling narrative twist worthy of Shakespeare, since Mr. Ambrozuk had earlier agreed to plead "no contest" in return for a suspended sentence of 10 years.

But moments before it was due to be sealed in court, the plea bargain was scuppered when the judge heard that strict probationary conditions attached to the sentence could not be enforced in Canada.

As a result, Judge Stewart Stadler suggested that a lengthy jail sentence might be imposed after all, prompting Mr. Ambrozuk to fight on in court.

The surprise development was yet another tough blow for the Babcock family, which has never stopped grieving the death of Ms. Babcock, nor forgiven Mr. Ambrozuk for allegedly enticing her away.

Pierre Trudeau was still prime minister and Ronald Reagan not halfway through his first term as U.S. president when a rented Cessna piloted by Mr. Ambrozuk, then 19, crashed into the dark waters of Little Bitterroot Lake in Montana on the night of Aug. 22, 1982.

Mr. Ambrozuk subsequently told a friend in a phone call that was taped by police that the young couple planned to sink the aircraft, swim away and begin new lives in the United States.

But the Cessna sank too quickly. Ms. Babcock, still buckled into her seat, went to the bottom, her long blond hair streaming out the airplane door.

Mr. Ambrozuk, however, managed his half of the plot successfully, swimming to shore with his possessions stored in a waterproof bag. He built a campfire to dry off and burned the plane's crash locators.

Then, he vanished, leaving behind two traumatized families and a host of unanswered questions.

How hard did Mr. Ambrozuk try to rescue his 18-year old sweetheart? Did he have an ulterior motive? And, most pertinent, why did he take off without reporting the crash and Ms. Babcock's death to police?

Except for a few rambling phone calls early on to a friend, and a postcard sent from Texas that Christmas to his family in Burnaby, the trail went cold and the mystery deepened. Where was Jerry Ambrozuk?

Finally, out of the blue, almost 24 years to the day that he disappeared, Mr. Ambrozuk was tracked down, thanks to a tip to police from a spurned girlfriend.

For the past six years, he had been living the life of a swinging bachelor in a posh Dallas suburb, with a large house, backyard pool and expensive cars.

His affluent neighbours knew him as Michael Lee Smith, owner of a successful software-development company.

Police knocks went unanswered until officers posed as water commissioners and Mr. Ambrozuk answered the door. After he admitted his true identity, he immediately asked to see a lawyer.

Late last year, he told a bail hearing that Dianne was "the love of my life" and her death was accidental. "We planned to elope and run away from home."

But a slightly different view surfaced during his call to the friend back home, taped by RCMP officers investigating his disappearance.

"I went because I was going, and she went because I guess she was in love with me or something like that. I wanted to get away, that's all. . . . She tagged along," Mr. Ambrozuk said over the phone, several days after the crash.

"She was calling out. There was no goddamned time. . . . She's gone and I'll never see her again in my life. It's like half of you is dying."

But in a heartfelt victim-impact statement to the court yesterday, Ted Babcock said he still doesn't understand why his daughter died.

"He's sitting in the plane beside her. They're shoulder to shoulder. And he gets out and manages to grab a bag and take it to shore. Why couldn't he undo Dianne's seat belt? She was right there."