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Exclusive: Jenni Rivera planned to buy plane that crashed, owner says

December 12, 2012 | 10:30 am

This post has been updated. Please see note below.

Jenni Rivera was in the final stages of buying the private jet that crashed in Mexico on Sunday, killing the famed Mexican American singer, two pilots and four members of her entourage, an executive who was selling the plane told The Times.

In a telephone interview from Mexico City, the executive, Christian E. Esquino Nunez, also said that the Learjet 25 was perfectly maintained. Esquino, 50, said he believes the 78-year-old pilot suffered a heart attack or was incapacitated in some way, and that a “green” co-pilot was unable to save the plane.

“We’re all grieving,” said Esquino, who described himself as the operations manager of the company that owned the Learjet 25, Starwood Management LLC of Las Vegas. “I’m definitely very sorry that this happened.”

PHOTOS: Jenni Rivera dies in plane crash

Rivera, 43, a mother of five and master of a growing international business empire, was killed when the jet plummeted 28,000 feet early Sunday morning and crashed near Iturbide, Mexico.

Rivera had sold 20 million albums, lived in a massive estate in Encino, was preparing to make her American network television debut and was at the height of her career.

Authorities have said that Rivera’s camp chartered the flight to ferry her from a performance in Monterrey, Mexico, to an appearance near Mexico City. That is not the case, Esquino said. In fact, Rivera was preparing to buy the jet from Starwood Management, through a broker, for $250,000, he said.

PHOTOS: Jenni Rivera - Reactions to the tragic crash

This flight had been provided free, Esquino said, because it was considered a “demo” -- a final opportunity for Rivera to see how the plane flew and operated.

Esquino has a troubled legal past and has fallen under scrutiny himself in the days after the crash. Among other legal problems, he was accused of conspiring with associates in the 1990s and 2000s to falsify records documenting the history of planes they bought and sold — tail numbers, airport codes, inspection stamps and logbooks. Esquino’s “fraudulent business practices ... put the flying public at risk,” federal authorities argued in documents obtained by The Times.

Esquino said he understands why that piece of his past would place him under enormous scrutiny in the wake of the accident.

An appreciation: Jenni Rivera was a rare voice

“Obviously, my past -- there is a story to it,” he said. “I understand that they are going to look at everything. It’s unavoidable that they are going to look at my past. … I think it’s fair to bring it up right now and question it.”

However, Esquino said, maintenance and safety issues “had nothing to do with the accident.” He said the 1969 Learjet had been based and maintained in Houston for the last 10 years, and underwent a top-to-bottom inspection this summer.

The same plane, according to U.S. aviation records, sustained “substantial” damage in 2005 when a fuel imbalance left one wing tip weighing as much as 300 pounds more than the other. The unnamed pilot, despite having logged more than 7,000 hours in the air, lost control while landing in Amarillo, Texas, and struck a runway distance marker. No one was injured.

Esquino called that accident “minor” and said the plane had flown without issue for 1,000 hours since then. He said the only conceivable explanation for the crash is that 78-year-old pilot Miguel Perez Soto was incapacitated. He said that while the Learjet was a fine airplane, “it has some critical characteristics.”

“Once it gets out of normal flight mode … it’s hard to recover,” said Esquino, himself a pilot for many years.

[Updated at 10:41 a.m. Dec. 12: Mexico’s Ministry of Communication and Transportation issued a statement late Wednesday declaring that the two pilots of the plane, Miguel Perez and Alejandro Torres, had valid licenses to fly in Mexico.

Starwood Management officials told Mexican authorities that Rivera was interested in buying the plane, and as a result, hadn’t paid to rent it, according to the statement.

Mexican authorities and the National Transportation Safety Board was continuing to investigate the crash “to formulate a hypothesis as to the cause of the accident,” the statement said, noting that the investigation could take nine months to a year to be concluded.

The remains of the passengers that have been found thus far, including Rivera’s, have been taken to the University Hospital in Monterrey, Mexico, where they will be analyzed by forensic experts there, the statement said.]

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--Scott Gold and Richard Fausset in Mexico City

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