Thursday, October 04, 2012

Air Tractor AT-502B: Suspect in crop duster shooting pleads not guilty

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A Talpa man accused of shooting a crop duster near his home earlier this year pleaded not guilty to a federal charge Wednesday afternoon.

Federal District Judge E. Scott Frost presided over the case in the San Angelo O.C. Fisher Federal Building.

John S. Young, of Sweetwater, represented James R. Cate, 68, at the hearing, which served the dual purpose as an initial appearance — where the indictment was read and it was established he understood the charge — and an arraignment — where he entered a plea.

Steve Ballard, the pilot of the crop duster, was reached Thursday afternoon but declined to comment on the case until it passes through the court system.

Denise Williams was at the hearing on behalf of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

According to court documents, an Air Tractor AT502B aircraft was damaged on Feb. 29.

Ballard reportedly was spraying a wheat field north of Talpa when the aircraft was struck by a round from a 25-06 rifle, a source with knowledge of the incident told the Abilene Reporter-News in March. As many as four rounds were fired at the plane, the source said.

One of the rounds struck the propeller, the source said, entered the fuselage near the engine and hit the 500-gallon hopper carrying agricultural chemicals. According to the source, the bullet ricocheted out of the hopper and into the cockpit, where it went through the pilot's trouser leg.

The propeller, the body of the plane and the plane's electrical and navigation systems were damaged, the source said.

"It's an unfortunate event," Young said after Wednesday's hearing. "This is a pilot that has had numerous complaints filed against him for dangerous conduct ... including taking down power lines and starting a grass fire near Coleman just recently."

In May, a crop duster dragging a power line with three live lines crashed and caused a grass fire on a wheat field in Winters, according to the Brownwood Bulletin.

The newspaper cited Ballard, of Ballard Crop Dusting Services, as the pilot. The plane was dragging a power line it had hit in Coleman, and crashed with the live power lines on the north side of the road. It caused the lines to break and start the fire.

The incident caused a blackout affecting traffic lights and some businesses and homes on the west side of Winters, the Bulletin reported.

In September a federal grand jury in Lubbock indicted Cate on one count of destruction of an aircraft. He faces up to 20 years in prison, along with a $250,000 fine if convicted.

The indictment stemmed from the February crop duster incident.

In court Wednesday, Williams said she was not opposed to Cate's release as long as he complied with terms set by the court, including turning over firearms, not having contact with witnesses or potential witnesses in future proceedings, and not to use alcohol excessively.

Cate's attorney, Young, told the judge Cate still may have a few firearms at his home but would transfer them that afternoon.

"Mr. Cate has been cooperating with state and federal authorities since the beginning," Young said. "We expect it to continue and seek reasonable resolution to these allegations."

Runnels and Coleman county officials investigated the incident initially, then turned over findings to the FBI.