BRASILIA, Brazil – A judge ruled Monday that authorities can continue to hold the passports of two American pilots involved in Brazil's worst air disaster.
Joseph Lepore, 42, of Bay Shore, N.Y., and Jan Paladino, 34, of Westhampton Beach, N.Y. have been prevented from leaving Brazil amid a probe into the cause of the mid-air collision between the pilots' Embraer Legacy jet and a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 on Sept. 29.
The Boeing crashed into Brazil's dense jungle and 154 people on board were killed. The Legacy landed safely with all seven people aboard unharmed.
Prosecutors have said Lepore and Paladino could be charged with involuntary manslaughter if they are found responsible for the crash. The pilots have denied any wrongdoing.
Federal Judge Charles Renaud Frazao de Moraes denied a request from one of the pilot's Brazilian attorneys, Theo Dias, to return the passports, saying they will be retained until an investigation into the crash is completed, the government news service Agencia Brasil reported.
"The decision is wrong," Dias said in an e-mail sent to the media. "Of all those involved in the accident they are the only ones being denied the right to come and go."
The Legacy which had just been purchased by ExcelAire Service Inc. of Ronkonkoma, N.Y. was on its inaugural flight. Shortly after the accident, authorities seized Lepore' and Paladino's passports. They have since been holed up in a hotel in Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach.
Robert Torricella, a Miami-based aviation attorney representing ExcelAire said in a statement: "While we respect the court and its decision, we obviously disagree with the ruling, and we intend to pursue additional legal avenues to obtain the release to which we believe we are entitled."