US TEAM inspects bullet-riddled missionary plane in Peru

Friday, May 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

IQUITOS, Peru (AP) _ Torrential rain poured down as U.S. and Peruvian investigators inspected the charred wreckage of an American missionary plane downed last month by Peru's air force, killing a U.S. woman and her baby.

Riddled with bullet holes, mostly in the fuselage and pontoons, the plane sat Thursday propped on a floating, open-air hangar along a tributary of the Amazon River here, 620 miles northeast of the capital, Lima.

Portions of both wings were melted and jagged and the interior was completely gutted from fire.

A U.S. delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State Rand Beers and accompanied by at least four Peruvian air force officers, spent 40 minutes examining the single-engine Cessna, which a Peruvian air force jet mistook for a drug smuggling flight and shot down on April 20.

The inspectors, nearly two dozen men and one woman, most in civilian clothes, refused to talk with a reporter.

Missionary Veronica ``Roni'' Bowers, 35, and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, seated in her lap, were killed by a single bullet when the jet fired on the Cessna.

Bowers' husband, Jim, 38, and their 6-year-old son, Cory, survived the attack without serious injury. The pilot, missionary Kevin Donaldson, 42, was seriously injured by gunfire to his legs, but was able to crash-land the plane on the Amazon.

``Mr. Beers and the others say they're not leaving any stone unturned,'' the pilot's father, Rich Donaldson, 66, said after the officials climbed aboard four Peruvian navy vessels and departed the hangar.

``They want to find out what went wrong and make sure it doesn't happen again, and that's all we can ask for,'' Donaldson said.

Beers, who heads the State Department counter-narcotics bureau, arrived in Peru on Sunday with a delegation that included officials from the Defense Department, the CIA and the U.S. Interdiction Coordinators Office, which reports directly to the White House's director of national drug control policy.

U.S. officials have said an American surveillance plane manned by a CIA-contracted crew alerted Peru's air force to the missionary plane's presence.

But the American crew urged the Peruvian pilot not to open fire because of mounting evidence the aircraft was flown by drug smugglers, the officials say.