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McDuffie County commissioner, brother become target of local, federal probe

A week after a McDuffie County commissioner and his brother reportedly tried to stop an aircraft taking off from the Thomson-McDuffie Regional Airport, local and federal authorities are still trying to figure out what - if any - laws were broken.

And while no charges had been filed as of early Wednesday, the investigation had passed through at least five local and federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The incident began on the evening of Wednesday, July 8, when an airport official called 911 to report that two men - later identified as Commissioner Paul McCorkle and his brother, Sammy McCorkle - were at the airport and had accosted an aircraft.

Pieced together from interviews with witnesses, lawmen and Commissioner McCorkle, the basic details of the incident vary little: Commissioner McCorkle had taken dinner to his mother's house on Wrightsboro Road - which is in the flight path of the airport. As they sat on the back deck eating pizza, a large jet flew overhead - low enough "that it clipped some trees," Commissioner McCorkle said. Commissioner McCorkle then called the airport to get the tail number of the craft to report a violation. When he did not get the requested information, he and his brother drove to the airport to see the plane themselves. They arrived, walked through the main building - past a sign barring anyone but pilots, passengers and employees from the tarmac - and outside, where Commissioner McCorkle stopped the plane and had a discussion with the pilot. Deputies were called, and the investigation began.

Witnesses at the airport said Commissioner McCorkle beat on the exterior of the plane and grabbed a chain in an effort to hold the plane in place.

"I saw Paul pick up the chain and try to wrap it around the landing gear," said Jim Blackmon, a specialist at the airport.

It was the banging on the side and the rattling of the plane's door that caught pilot Dean Carrara's attention.

"The potential for damage to that airplane was pretty high," he said. "If you get a chain around it, it's a 22,000-lb. airplane, but when it starts to move, it doesn't stop with a chain hooked to it. There could have been a fuel spill, a fire could have ensued - it could have been literally a disaster with loss of life."

Mr. Carrara said he shut off the engines of the plane, stepped out to speak with Mr. McCorkle on the tarmac, listened to his complaints and tried to calm the situation. He took issue with Commissioner McCorkle's assertion that the plane glanced off treetops, saying the impact would have likely caused extensive damage.

He said commissioner could have easily reported the complaint about low flying to the FAA's hotline.

"As far as the low-flying aircraft report card goes, by the standard approach - on glide slope to that airport, you fly over his house less than 300 feet," Mr. Carrara said, adding that Mr. McCorkle threatened to shoot down the plane if it ever flew that low again.

He said there was no damage to the aircraft after the incident. Local authorities also checked the jet for visible damage, but saw none.

McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall said his office spent several hours July 8 and July 9 investigating the incident, including a couple of interviews with the McCorkle brothers.

Commissioner McCorkle, who is in his first of a four-year term, told The Mirror that he was responsible for the incident - not his brother.

"I did it," Commissioner McCorkle said shortly after deputies, a Thomson police officer and a trooper with the Georgia State Patrol escorted him and his brother to a waiting patrol car from a home on Wrightsboro Road last Wednesday. It came less than a half hour after the incident unfolded at the airport. Commissioner McCorkle, however, did not elaborate what he had done.

Shortly after wrapping up the initial interviews with the McCorkles last Wednesday, Sheriff's Investigator Larry Adaway said he was looking into whether any laws had actually been broken. Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney Dennis C. Sanders said Sheriff Marshall conferred with him and Chief Assistant District Attorney Durwood R. Davis last Thursday afternoon.

Mr. Sanders said it did not appear to him that any state laws had been broken.

Since then, the incident has become somewhat of a hot potato, with various investigative agencies passing the file along.

The Federal Aviation Administration? They received the investigation from the sheriff's department last Thursday afternoon, but had already made a ruling on it by Monday.

"The FAA has no jurisdiction in this matter," Kathleen Bergen, a public affairs spokeswoman for the agency told The McDuffie Mirror during a telephone interview on Monday afternoon.

What about the U.S. Transportation Security Administration? They were notified of the incident, but is no longer actively involved, said spokesman John Allen.

"This comes under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement," Mr. Allen said.

Now, apparently, the investigation is in the hands of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Keith Bounds, who has managed the airport for the past 4 1/2 years, said he has spoken with FBI agents in both Augusta and Atlanta since the incident. Mr. Bounds said his first conversation with that agency came on the night of the incident and followed his initial call to local authorities.


Web posted on Thursday, July 16, 2009

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