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Family: Speicher Found Far From Crash Site

michael_scott_speicherThe remains of Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher were discovered far from the his downed F/A-18 Hornet's crash site in western Iraq, and a team of experts is working to help the Navy determine the details surrounding his death, according to a person close to the family.

The Navy is working with an ejection expert, an anthropologist and a forensic scientist to help resolve the 18-year-old mystery surrounding the fighter pilot's crash in January 1991, during the opening hours of the Gulf War.

"We can hopefully get a date of death, plus a date for when (the remains) were placed in the desert," said Albert "Buddy" Harris, Speicher's friend and a former Navy pilot who has since married Speicher's widow.

Speicher, the only American who remained missing in action from Operation Desert Storm, was shot down Jan. 17, 1991, while flying a combat mission over Anbar province.

His death was thrust back into the spotlight Sunday after military officials announced that remains had been discovered in Iraq matching Speicher's dental records. A DNA test is still pending.

Speicher's family received the first of a series of top-secret briefings Tuesday about the recent discovery. Military officials told Speicher's family that his remains were found in an unmarked desert grave that was not in the vicinity of the crash site.

"It was some distance," said Harris, who was present at the briefing.

Harris cautioned against drawing any conclusions about Speicher's death and said the family expects to receive a series of briefings during the next several weeks.

"So far, nothing is conclusive," Harris said.

In July, Marines in western Iraq received information from a local resident about the crash of an American jet and the burial of its pilot, said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp, the Navy's top spokesman. Troops were told the Speicher's body was buried by Bedouins.

"One of these Iraqi citizens stated that they were present when Captain Speicher was found dead at the crash site by Bedouins and his remains buried," Thorp said. "The Iraqi citizens led U.S. Marines to the site."

Initially listed as killed in action, Speicher's status has changed over the years - to "missing in action" and later "missing/captured" - as the military has continued to investigate the crash.

An attorney hired by the family to help investigate the crash said Speicher ejected safely and was alive immediately after the incident.

"We know he got out of the jet," said Florida attorney Sean Cronin. Evidence suggests "he was alive on the ground. After that we don't know what happened."

Cronin said the flight data recorder recovered at the crash site in the 1990s showed Speicher ejected at a safe altitude and his flight suit was discovered intact without signs of serious injury.

This week's news was greeted with skepticism by some of Speicher's friends and family, who for years have complained that some military leaders did not do enough to find the remains and resolve questions about Speicher's status.

"It really just blows me away ... to suggest that he was killed at that crash site. There is just too much evidence to suggest otherwise," said Nels Jensen, one of Speicher's high school friends who for years maintained a Web site called "Friends Working To Free Scott Speicher." The site was shut down several years ago.

Jensen, who now lives in Arkansas, pointed to potential clues that Speicher may have ejected from the plane and was captured by Iraqi forces. The initials "MSS" were found scrawled on a prison wall in Baghdad, for example, and there were reports of sightings.

Ten years after the Gulf War, the Navy changed Speicher's status to missing in action, citing an absence of evidence that he had died.

In October 2002, the Navy switched his status to "missing/captured," although it has never said what evidence it had that he was ever in captivity.

Speicher, a lieutenant commander at the time of the 1991 crash, has since been promoted to captain.

Another review was done in 2005 with information gleaned after Baghdad fell in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which allowed U.S. officials to search inside Iraq.

The review board recommended then that the Pentagon work with the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi government to "increase the level of attention and effort inside Iraq" to resolve the question of Speicher's fate.

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