SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Authorities are trying to determine how a pilot suspected in a homicide was able to slip into a small Utah airport and steal an empty passenger plane that he drove into some cars. He was later found dead in an aisle of the aircraft with a gunshot wound to the head.
SkyWest Airlines pilot Brian Hedglin used a rug to scale the razor wire-topped fence at the St. George Municipal Airport early Tuesday. The plane crashed in an airport parking lot before it got off the ground.
Authorities were trying to determine just how Hedglin — wanted in the murder of his girlfriend in Colorado — gained access to the 50-passenger plane while the airport was closed, among other details.
The short ride was jarring enough to collapse the plane’s front landing gear as it careened over landscaping, crossed a road and hit a curb before crashing into cars in the parking lot, St. George police Capt. James Van Fleet said.
“He might have been standing in the cockpit and was thrown back,” Van Fleet said Wednesday.
“Right now, we just don’t know when he was shot,” Van Fleet said. “Did he shoot himself at the beginning and the plane went on a ride on its own? We don’t know.”
He said investigators were still awaiting toxicology reports to determine whether drugs or alcohol were a factor. He said they were also awaiting data from the cockpit recorder.
Meanwhile, SkyWest officials said the company deactivated Hedglin’s access cards and put him on administrative leave after Colorado authorities named him a murder suspect, but declined to explain how he was able to steal one of their planes.
Van Fleet said he didn’t know if the plane was locked, and SkyWest declined to discuss it.
Van Fleet also said that once his officers had finished processing evidence on the plane, it was released to SkyWest, which painted over its logo and moved the aircraft back onto secure airport property.
SkyWest spokeswoman Marissa Snow said the jet was scheduled for a flight later Tuesday morning, but noted it was empty and sitting on the tarmac when Hedglin stole it.
The CRJ200 aircraft is made by Bombardier and is capable of flying up to 534 mph with a range of 1,700 miles. Normally it has a two-person flight crew and one flight attendant.
Hedglin had been a pilot for the airline since 2005, and has flown these specific planes numerous times, Snow said.
Snow declined to say whether the plane was secured at the time of the incident, noting only that “there are numerous federally mandated procedures for securing an aircraft.”
“This access was unauthorized,” she said, declining to provide specific details about how Hedglin was able to board the plane. She also declined to say whether the plane was fueled up, noting it was all part of an ongoing investigation by local authorities in Utah, federal agencies and the airline.
Marianella de la Barrera, a Toronto-based spokeswoman for Bombardier, said security features vary airline to airline and sometimes even are different within an airline’s fleet.
Even though planes can be equipped with or without locking mechanisms, she said training and experience would be needed to operate one.
“An average person wouldn’t be able to walk up and start one up,” she said.
The incident has raised overall concerns that the nation’s airports may not be as safe as they should be.
The Transportation Security Administration doesn’t require airports to maintain full-time surveillance of their perimeter fences, leaving airport security largely in the hands of individual facilities. St. George airport officials have said the small facility about 120 miles northeast of Las Vegas meets all federal security guidelines.
Van Fleet said just one officer provides security for the airport as it is closed through the night until 6 a.m. the next morning when TSA officials and others return. He said his agency would be discussing whether additional security measures need to be added but noted “this was a very determined person.”
TSA spokesman Dave Castelveter said the agency was involved in the investigation, but declined to discuss specific security protocols, including how a plane is supposed to be secured when it is out of service, emphasizing that each airport has different security needs.
“Aviation security is not a one size fits all process,” Castelveter said.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation Security, said the Utah incident “shows major security weaknesses at our airports that need to be addressed.”
“We have been pushing TSA to do a much better job overall of working with its partners, including airport authorities, to improve security,” Rogers said in a statement Wednesday. “American taxpayers deserve better and have a right to be outraged at this.”
One aviation security expert said it might be time to revisit protocols aimed at securing airport perimeters.
“Maybe we need to implement some more levels of perimeter security because any type of security incident like this is a lesson to both the good guys and the bad guys. They read the papers just as much as we do,” said Jeff Price, an aviation professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver and former assistant security director at Denver International Airport.
Hedglin was wanted in the death of his of his girlfriend and fellow Colorado National Guard member, Christina Cornejo, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Her body was found July 13. Authorities said she had been stabbed multiple times. Hedglin was the key suspect but had not been charged.
The Gazette of Colorado Springs, citing court records, reported Hedglin dated Cornejo for four years and was arrested in March after he was accused of harassing her.
The records show that a restraining order was issued against Hedglin, and he was set for trial in August. He was released on $10,000 bond.
Attorney Steven Rodemer, who represented Hedglin in that case, said he was facing misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief, theft and harassment.
Hedglin was a part-time soldier who worked as a cook in the Colorado National Guard.
Cornejo was a full-time soldier who served in the Colorado Army National Guard’s 100th Missile Defense Brigade in Colorado Springs. She enlisted in June 2006, became a second lieutenant last year and was named a distinguished honor graduate in two training programs. She had recently begun training as a current operations officer.
By Brian Skoloff, AP Writer (© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)