A Wyoming man may have an ulterior motive in suing a Delaware-based company that searches for Amelia Earhart’s missing plane, according to his post on a private online forum.
If the post is to be believed, Timothy Mellon is aiming to bankrupt The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) and mop up the remains. Mellon denies the sincerity of his post.
Mellon, chairman and majority stockholder of Pan Am Systems and a resident of Riverside, filed a lawsuit against TIGHAR on June 3 in U.S. District Court of Wyoming for what he claims was deceitful solicitation of his money. Mellon said TIGHAR Executive Director Richard Gillespie convinced Mellon to contribute more than $1 million to search for Earhart’s missing plane when in fact, the plane had already been found near an island in the South Pacific two years earlier.
Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared on July 2, 1937 while flying over the Pacific Ocean.
Mellon’s purported basis for these claims is a video of one of TIGHAR’s 2010 underwater missions, according to the lawsuit.
“Significant footage of the waters surrounding Nikumaroro was obtained during the investigation, including footage of the wreckage of the Lockheed Electra flown by Amelia Earhart when she disappeared in 1937,” the complaint states.
Mellon said he has located various artifacts through examination of the video, including a toilet seat, a banjo and its case, as well as human remains.
Mellon said that instead of announcing the discovery to the public, TIGHAR opted to withhold the news so as to enable the company to raise money for another, superfluous mission. Mellon donated to the search in 2012.
TIGHAR attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the racketeering suit, claiming the plaintiff has failed to meet legal requirements in the complaint. Gillespie said he surveyed the video in question 100 times and saw nothing but coral. He said there was no way that a discovery of this magnitude could be hidden from the world.
“What must be believed to allow this matter to go forward is a chain of events, conspiracy, decision-making and actions that defies all logic,” the defense stated it its motion to dismiss.
The Star-Tribune obtained correspondence from a private, Earhart-centered online forum, of which Mellon confirmed he is a member.
In a post written on June 1, two days before the lawsuit was filed, Mellon appealed to the other forum members:
“If and when TIGHAR goes bankrupt, I am considering the formation of a for-profit company with the purpose of purchasing whatever rights and assets that estate might hold. I see a real opportunity to parlay Ric’s (presumably, Richard Gillespie) incompetence into a profitable travel tour play.”
Mellon goes on to shop for investors among forum members and asks for a “clever idea” for the name of his tourism company.
When speaking with the Star-Tribune, Mellon ceded that he did author the post, but only as a joke.
“It has nothing to do with reality,” he said. “I have no such plans.”
Mellon went on to say that he wrote the post as a test to see if other members of the private forum were leaking information, and, as it turns out, someone was.
Mellon said that the post does not discredit the lawsuit.
“It was a private statement,” he said.
Gillespie has viewed the post, as well, and said it adds a whole new dimension to the lawsuit.
He said when Mellon writes of TIGHAR’s “rights and assets” in the post, he is likely referring to the nonprofit’s exclusive agreement with the Republic if Kirabati to search for the pilot and her plane’s remains within its territorial boundaries. TIGHAR operates under the hypothesis that Earhart’s plane, the Lockheed Electra, landed on Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, a remote island of Kiribati.
“Mr. Mellon is apparently under the impression that that agreement is an asset that can be acquired, and it’s not that way at all,” Gillespie said. "This agreement is an international agreement between a sovereign nation and a nonprofit, based on 25 years of mutual cooperation and a building of trust.”
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced TIGHAR’s intended search mission on March 20, 2012. Gillespie said that two days later he received an email from Mellon inquiring about funding opportunities. Gillespie said he had never heard of Mellon before the email.
The next phase of the lawsuit is an oral hearing on the defendant’s motion to dismiss. It is slated for Aug. 27 before U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl in Casper.
Defense attorney John Masterson said he has seen the post but said its legal implications will not be discussed at the upcoming hearing.
"If it turns out that Mr. Mellon did it, and if it’s true that that’s his motive, it’s a very very sad thing," Masterson said. "From our point of view, with evidence in a court of law, we’re a long way from being able to know whether or not he made it and what his motive was."
Masterson said attorneys will only discuss at the next hearing whether the plaintiff has met the legal requirements to initiate a lawsuit.
Mellon is represented by attorneys from the Billings, Mont., and Casper branches of Crowley Fleck PLLP, who were unavailable for comment.