The larger plane — Gol Flight 1907, from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro — disintegrated midair. Every one of its 154 passengers and crew was killed. The body of Gutjahr’s husband, Rolf, was found amid the wreckage on the forest floor.
The Embraer Legacy 600, meanwhile, managed to land at a nearby military base. None of the seven passengers and crew on board — all Americans — suffered injuries.
Today, Gutjahr hoped, she would find out whether justice would finally come to the men she blames for her husband’s death.
The question of responsibility in what was then the deadliest aviation disaster in Brazil’s history divided the Western Hemisphere’s two largest countries. In the American telling, the collision was caused by Brazilian air traffic controllers. The pilots did nothing wrong — were heroes, even, for safely landing their jet under extraordinarily challenging conditions. After being detained by Brazilian authorities for weeks, Paladino and Lepore returned to a triumphant welcome in the United States.
“It will indeed be a blessed holiday season,” rejoiced Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
But in Brazil, the American pilots were found to be at fault. A criminal court determined that Paladino and Lepore had flown while the plane’s transponder was inactive, effectively blinding traffic controllers to their jet’s precise altitude. They were found guilty in 2011 of attacking the security of an airplane and sentence to 40 months of probation.
“The pilots’ failure caused the tragedy,” future president Dilma Rousseff said as she campaigned for her first term.
Paladino and Lepore have denied all allegations of wrongdoing and have not been charged with any crime in the United States. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said the pilots were unaware of the transponder’s “inadvertent inactivation” and did not violate any regulation.
Paladino, today a pilot for American Airlines, did not return requests for comment. Lepore, who also continues to fly professionally, declined to comment.
The impasse is now a case study in the difficulty of carrying out criminal sentences on foreign nationals living abroad. After all appeals were exhausted, Brazil requested the pilots’ extradition in March 2020. But this year, the United States rejected the petition. It now appears unlikely the pilots will ever return to Brazil to serve their sentences.
“The treaty between Brazil and the United States does not provide for extradition for this crime,” their Brazilian attorney, Theo Dias, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Most of the victims’ families have long since given up waiting. But not Gutjahr.
She has dedicated her life to bringing the two pilots to some version of Brazilian justice. She has sold her business to eliminate distractions. She has joined the prosecutors’ case in an official capacity and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to advance it. She has hounded officials for status meetings.
Now, weeks after the United States denied Brazil’s extradition request, Gutjahr, 66, was waiting on her last best chance at redress. The Brazilian judge who convicted the pilots had ruled in 2019 that the pilots could serve their sentence on American soil. She had a meeting this morning to ask a senior justice official if that might still happen.
She finished her coffee. She felt that rage rising again.
“One hundred fifty four deaths,” she said.
She stepped outside the building and lit a cigarette.
“I will make sure the pilots pay,” she said. “I will fight until I go crazy.”
Then she blew out a plume of smoke, stamped out her cigarette and headed into the justice ministry.
A midair collision over the jungle
The disaster began with a celebration. The American charter firm ExcelAire had just bought an executive jet from the Brazilian manufacturer Embraer. So on Sept. 29, 2006, executives from both companies toasted the purchase and then prepared for the jet’s inaugural flight from the Brazilian city of São José dos Campos.
Lepore and Paladino were in the cockpit, Brazil’s Aeronautical Accidents Investigation and Prevention Center would report, to familiarize themselves with the route and the aircraft itself. This was their first flight in Brazil.
ExcelAire did not respond to a request for comment.
The jet was set to fly at 37,000 feet to Brasília and then descend to 36,000 feet. Later, it would climb to 38,000 feet until reaching the Amazonian city of Manaus. The flight plan would keep the jet within the standard altitude as it transited the two-way air route called UZ6.
But as the jet took off, air traffic controllers authorized the pilots to hold steady at 37,000 feet — placing it at the same altitude as oncoming air traffic.
That’s not unusual: Air traffic controllers routinely issue fresh directives to pilots midflight. But two failures primed the flight for disaster. First, the jet lost radio contact with air traffic control. Then its transponder stopped transmitting its signal.
That meant air traffic control couldn’t see its precise altitude. More crucially, it nullified the plane’s traffic collision avoidance system, which relies on the transponder signal to warn nearby pilots of its location.
For 55 minutes, the plane flew hundreds of miles effectively in the dark, without headlights.
Still, the ride was smooth, recalled passenger Daniel Bachmann, a dual U.S.-Brazilian citizen who worked for Embraer. A journalist was quietly working on a piece about the plane’s sale for Business Jet Traveler. The American executives were asking questions about the Amazon below.
“Then I felt this enormous bang,” Bachman told The Washington Post. “Like we were sitting on bleachers and someone had pounded on it with a baseball bat.”
Alarms went off. The plane started descending. The pilots had no idea what they’d struck: “What the hell was that?” Paladino exclaimed, according to the accident report.
The trees below, Bachman said, were getting closer and closer.
“We thought, ‘This is it.’”
But the pilots somehow made it to a jungle airstrip. It was a miracle. Until it wasn’t: They soon learned they’d clipped a 737, and all 154 people on board were dead.
“Horrible,” Paladino would later tell the Today Show’s Matt Lauer. “Just to be involved in something like this. I would never have comprehended that it would ever happen.”
Anger was rising in Brazil. Lepore and Paladino were detained, released and returned to the United States, promising to cooperate with the Brazilian authorities.
Paladino denied allegations of wrongdoing.
“The facts of the case will come out,” he told Lauer. “We just want the truth to come out.”
Then came the trial, the conviction and the sentence. Neither pilot ever returned to Brazil.
‘This wasn’t an accident; this was a crime’
The case for extradition was never going to be easy. First, the United States did not agree that the pilots had committed wrongdoing. Second, the alleged offense did not appear on the 1961 extradition treaty signed between the nations. Even if U.S. authorities had wanted to cooperate, they would have had no legal basis to act.
“Extradition is a big deal,” said John Parry, an extradition scholar at the Lewis & Clark Law School. “And here, the alleged crime just doesn’t fit within the treaty.”
The Office of International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Justice, which manages extradition requests, declined to comment.
As it became clear the pilots would not return, Brazilians who lost loved ones on the 737 believed they had little choice but to move on. Many accepted some type of payout from the airlines amid a flurry of lawsuits, but felt powerless to penalize the pilots.
“It was better to forget,” said Jorge André Cavalcante, former president of the crash’s victims association, whose nephew died in the crash.
“Spending your whole life fighting for justice, it was just too painful,” said Neusa Felipeto Machado, who lost her husband. Most families, including Machado, ultimately accepted payouts from the airlines involved in the collision. The association winnowed to just a few members.
Only one person, Machado said, never faltered.
At her home in Curitiba, Gutjahr erected a small shrine to Rolf. She never took off her engagement ring. She raised their daughter, 4 at the time of the accident, to understand the case as she did.
“This wasn’t an accident; this was a crime,” said Luiza Gutjahr, now 21. “My father lost his life because of the recklessness of two criminals.”
In interview after interview, year after year, Gutjahr seethed in comments that seemed to evince as much thirst for revenge as for justice. In 2012: “They say time diminishes pain; I tell you it does not.” In 2013: “They have to get the maximum penalty.” In 2021: “I want to take their home, I want to take their car, I want to take everything,” she said. “It won’t bring back my husband, but they are living normally.”
Attorney Daniel Roller, who for years represented Gutjahr in her quest, said he has tried at several moments to counsel her that what she wanted was not possible. The magnitude of penalty was unlikely to ever match the magnitude of her loss. Perhaps, he once told her gently, it would be best to let it go. Focus her life elsewhere.
She would hear none of it.
“I’ve never seen anyone so determined,” he said.
But as she sat in an expansive office at the Brazilian justice ministry, her determination was put to the test. The news was not good.
Augusto Botelho, Brazil’s national secretary of justice, told her the government supported her. But that wouldn’t be enough to bring the pilots to justice. That would be up to the United States, which was unlikely to enforce a Brazilian sentence in its territory.
Botelho apologized that he couldn’t do more, wished Gutjahr the best and led her out of the room.
She was alone again. These were the moments when she most wished Rolf were still alive. There had been such joy to him. He would have known what to say to make her feel better.
She stepped outside and lit another cigarette.
“There were 154 deaths,” she said. “Such a complete lack of respect by the American justice system.”
She perceived discrimination.
“Is it because we’re from the Third World?” she said. “Because we’re not so strong like the Americans? But we have the same bodies, same pains, same everything.”
But the moment, when she allowed doubt and defeat to weaken her resolve, quickly passed. She stubbed out the cigarette and was on to next steps. If the federal judge presiding over the case issued a fresh injunction ordering the sentence to be served in the United States, the government would have fresh motive to pressure the Americans.
“I will write the judge,” she said. “I will ask for a meeting.”
She wasn’t ready to give up her life’s purpose. Not yet.
“One hundred fifty-four deaths,” she repeated. “I will not forget.”
Marina Dias in Brasília contributed to this report.