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Jenni Rivera family to file lawsuit against plane owner

Lawyers representing the families of Mexican American singer Jenni Rivera and others who died in a plane crash are expected to file a lawsuit against the operator of the private jet company.

Details on the suit against Starwood Management LLC are expected to be released at a 10:30 a.m. news conference Thursday at the Millennium Biltmore hotel in downtown L.A. In addition to Rivera, the lawsuit will cover the families of her publicist, make-up artist, hairstylist and attorney.

Rivera and six others, including two pilots, died Dec. 9 when the private jet they were flying in went into a dive, plummeting nose-first 28,000 feet in 30 seconds before hitting the side of a mountain.

PHOTOS: Jenni Rivera dies in plane crash

Interviews and documents link the jet to a troubled company and an executive once imprisoned for faking the safety records of planes he bought from the Mexican government and sold to private pilots in the United States.

According to federal aviation records, the Learjet 25 carrying Rivera from a performance in Monterrey, Mexico, was built in 1969 and owned by Las Vegas-based Starwood.

A Starwood executive, Christian E. Esquino Nunez, was accused of conspiring with associates in the 1990s and 2000s to falsify records documenting the history of planes they bought and sold, including tail numbers, inspection stamps and logbooks.

Esquino's "fraudulent business practices ... put the flying public at risk," federal authorities argued in documents obtained by The Times.

"We had a forewarning that this is what he is," Timothy D. Coughlin, an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, said. "Essentially, they would manufacture the records ... that would indicate that maintenance was up to date. They would create them out of whole cloth."

Once Esquino brought the planes across the border for sale, "it was open season," Coughlin said.

Coughlin prosecuted the case against Esquino in 2005, resulting in a guilty plea that sent Esquino to a federal prison in Lompoc for two years.

After his release from prison, Esquino was deported from Southern California to his native Mexico, where he lives today.

For 20 years, Esquino has been embroiled in a thicket of legal allegations, many involving airplanes--a bankruptcy and a restraining order, criminal indictments and civil judgments, cocaine-distribution charges, even a role in an alleged conspiracy to airlift relatives of the late Moammar Kadafi out of Libya.

Esquino, 50, said in the days after her death that the flight was not a charter as authorities have said. Rather, Rivera was in the final stages of buying the plane from Starwood for $250,000; the flight was offered as a free "demo."

He described himself as Starwood's operations manager and said he understood why his past would place him under scrutiny in the wake of the accident.

"Obviously my past -- there is a story to it," he said. "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, he said, the jet was perfectly maintained. He said the only conceivable explanation for the crash was that pilot Miguel Perez Soto suffered a heart attack or was incapacitated in some way and that a younger co-pilot, Alejandro Torres, was unable to save the plane. (Authorities stressed that they have not determined a cause of the crash or whether the plane had any problems.)

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.

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-- Scott Gold, Adolfo Flores 
 
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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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