Murder suspect lost family in air crash

Candles and flowers have been laid outside the victim's home Keystone

Police say a man arrested over the killing of an air traffic controller lost three members of his family in a fatal crash in Swiss-controlled airspace.

This content was published on February 26, 2004 - 16:43

The victim was on duty when 71 people, mostly Russian children, died in the mid-air collision in July 2002.

The suspect, a 48-year-old man, was arrested close to the town of Kloten near Zurich on Wednesday night. Police declined to reveal his identity or nationality.

They said the suspect had been questioned and had denied stabbing the controller to death outside his Kloten home on Tuesday evening.

"He was calm; he denied having done the deed," said Zurich prosecutor Pascal Gossner.

"But he gave the impression that he had not come to terms with the death of his daughter, son and wife who died in the accident."

Gossner said the man had been in Switzerland once before to attend a memorial service for the victims of the crash. Police said he had "drawn attention to himself" at the service.

"He was also asking questions about the air traffic controllers," said Marcel Sutter of the Zurich police.

The victims' families were also able to visit the offices of the Swiss air traffic control agency, Skyguide, last year. The suspect was among the group.

Murder scene

Zurich police chief Georges Dulex told a press conference that a neighbour of the victim had approached the killer outside the controller's home shortly before the stabbing.

The neighbour said he was holding a piece of paper and wanted to know where the air traffic controller lived.

Dulex said the attacker and the 36-year-old victim spoke briefly outside the controller's home.

The killer was then spotted fleeing the scene, leaving the controller bleeding to death on the ground in front of his wife.

Police said they later found a knife with a 14cm blade - suspected to be the murder weapon - close by. It is being examined by forensic experts.

The Danish victim had lived in Switzerland for seven years and was the father of three children.

Collision

A Bashkirian Airlines plane carrying a large number of Russian schoolchildren collided with a DHL cargo plane over Überlingen in southern Germany on July 1, 2002.

Swiss air traffic control gave confusing instructions to the Russian pilot, which contributed to the crash.

A Hamburg-based lawyer representing the parents of the dead expressed shock that one of the relatives might be responsible for the killing.

"This situation is very shocking for all families in Russia and we for our part think that we have to wait for further investigation," Gerrit Wilmans told swissinfo.

The lawyer said he was not worried the case would affect public sympathy for victims and their families.

"If there is a father guilty in this murder case, it is the act of one single person and not of the whole group of families. This is a very important fact which has to be understood by the public, by Skyguide and the other defendants in this case."

Network errors blamed

Two weeks after the tragedy, the unidentified controller admitted in a statement that network errors had been to blame.

The Federal Office for Civil Aviation moved him to other duties after a period of psychological treatment.

Skyguide later came under heavy criticism when it emerged that only one person was on duty during the night of the crash.

Late last year, the first compensation payouts reached a number of victims’ families after Skyguide negotiated an out-of-court settlement with some relatives.

Talks are continuing with the relatives of other victims over compensation packages.

The German authorities are still investigating the Überlingen tragedy; their report is expected later this year.

Normal operations

When contacted by swissinfo, Skyguide spokesman Patrick Heer refused to comment the latest developments.

The company said on Thursday that the operation of air traffic control in Zurich was back to normal.

Flights over the Zurich area were scaled back by 40 per cent on Wednesday out of consideration for staff and to ensure security.

Police said on Thursday that they had given protection to an unknown number of Skyguide staff.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber

In brief

Police have arrested and detained a suspect in connection with Tuesday's murder of an air traffic controller.

The unnamed victim was on duty the night of a mid-air collision between a Russian jet and a cargo plane, which killed 71 people in July 2002.

The controller's confusing advice is thought to have contributed to the crash.

Police are not ruling out a link between the two incidents.

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Key facts

July 1, 2002: Bashkirian Airlines jet and DHL cargo plane collide in Swiss airspace, killing 71.
July 13, 2002: the air traffic controller on duty admits network errors were to blame.
June 2003: Switzerland, Germany and Skyguide agree to set up a compensation fund.
November 2003: a first round of compensation reaches the families of 12 Russian victims.
February 24, 2004: the air traffic controller on duty at the time of the crash is stabbed to death.

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