For more than 20 years, the FBI’s Miami Field Office has been searching for a fugitive airline mechanic who may have had a role in the fatal crash of a ValuJet Airlines passenger plane in the Florida Everglades in 1996.
The mechanic, Mauro Ociel Valenzuela-Reyes, worked for the airline’s maintenance contractor, SabreTech. He was facing federal criminal charges in 1999 after crash investigators determined he had a role in the mishandling and packaging of oxygen generators that were placed in the DC-9’s cargo hold. The generators, which were missing their required safety caps, ignited in the cargo area, causing the crash that killed all 110 passengers and crew members aboard.
“He fled before trial,” said FBI Miami Special Agent Jacqueline Fruge, who has been the primary agent on the case since it began.
Hoping to generate new leads, FBI Miami recently announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to Valenzuela-Reyes’s capture. A new wanted poster shows an array of photos of the fugitive as he appeared in 1996 and how he might appear today.
“We want closure,” said Fruge, who worked closely with the victims’ families in the days and years after the crash.
ValuJet Flight 592 had taken off from Miami International Airport on May 11, 1996, when the pilot reported a fire in the cargo area about 10 minutes into the flight. The plane was returning to the airport when it pitched nose-down into the shallow, marshy waters of the Everglades.
Fruge vividly recalls video taken by responders in the hours after the crash—the eerie calm of the crater, the jet fuel, and the enduring image of shoes in the surrounding sawgrass and muck. “It just went to pieces,” she said.
The immediate investigation proved challenging—both to determine the cause of the crash and to identify the remains of the plane’s occupants. In some cases, Fruge asked victims’ families to provide personal effects that might contain latent fingerprints that could be matched with remains found at the crash scene. A baby album helped investigators identify one woman who was a young mother. Fingerprints in a playbook helped identify a football player.
Victims’ families have marked anniversaries of the crash by visiting a memorial site built in 1999 for the third anniversary. On the 20th anniversary in 2016, FBI Miami issued a press release reminding the public that Valenzuela-Reyes was still on the run. He has connections to Atlanta, Georgia, where his ex-wife and kids have resided, and Santiago, Chile, where he has family and may be residing today under a false identity.
“We’ve tried over the years to find him,” said Fruge, who has been a special agent for 29 years and hopes to close this case while it’s under her watch. “It bothers me. I’ve lived and breathed it for many, many years.”
The crash investigation, led by the National Transportation Safety Board, ultimately led to new aircraft safety standards. Two other SabreTech employees who were charged in the criminal case were acquitted. If captured, Valenzuela-Reyes would face charges related to the crash and additional federal charges, issued in 2000, for fleeing and failing to appear at his trial.
Fruge said she hopes the new reward and poster—which is being circulated in Chile as well as the U.S.—might lead to a tip that brings the fugitive to justice and some peace to the victims’ families.