Lenami Godinez-Avila had just started a tandem hang-gliding flight with an instructor – a gift from her boyfriend – when she fell from the glider, plunging hundreds of feet to her death Saturday in a heavily wooded part of western Canada, authorities say.
Investigators trying to determine why she fell are accusing the instructor of trying to hide what might be a key piece of evidence – a possible onboard video recording of the flight – in his digestive tract.
William Jonathan Orders, 50, was arrested Saturday and charged this week with obstructing justice, accused of swallowing a memory card from a video camera that accompanied the pair on the flight near Agassiz, British Columbia, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said.
Orders is scheduled to appear Friday afternoon in provincial court in Chilliwack for a hearing to determine whether he can be released on bail. But it’s unclear if it will be postponed – as it was Wednesday – if authorities haven’t retrieved the memory card, said Neil MacKenzie, communications counsel with the province’s criminal justice branch.
X-rays confirmed the card was in Orders’ body, and authorities as of Thursday morning still were waiting for the object to pass, RCMP Constable Tracy Wolbeck said. Investigators hope to recover the object.
“It’s difficult to speculate” whether the card will have retrievable video, Wolbeck said. “We’re just going to have to wait and see.”
The fall happened near Mount Woodside, from which Orders and the 27-year-old Godinez-Avila took off, more than 50 miles east of Vancouver.
A witness, Nicole McLearn, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that when the glider was in the air, Godinez-Avila appeared to be wearing her harness, but it wasn’t attached to the glider. The passenger clung to Orders before she fell, McLearn said.
"He was horizontal but she was now hanging vertically, and it looked like in essence she had him in a bear hug around the chest area," McLearn told the CBC.
"I could see her starting to slip down his body ... past the waist, down the legs. Finally she got to the feet and tried to hang on and obviously couldn't hang on for that much longer and let go, tearing off the tandem pilot's shoes in the process," McLearn said.
Jason Warner, safety director for the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada, told the CBC on Sunday that he talked to Orders shortly after the incident on Saturday afternoon.
"He tried to grab her – he tried to grab her harness, everything he could, wrapped his legs around her – and she slipped down his legs and then fell," Warner told the CBC.
Godinez-Avila’s boyfriend was videotaping the flight from the ground, the RCMP’s Wolbeck said. She said she couldn’t say how much of the flight was on the boyfriend’s camera, but the RCMP has the footage.
Godinez-Avila’s body was found Saturday after an extensive search of the wooded area, the RCMP said.
Orders told police he had swallowed the memory card of the onboard camera, Wolbeck said. When asked whether Orders explained why he had done so, Wolbeck said she couldn’t comment further on conversations he’d had with investigators.
The RCMP said it and the Coroners Service of British Columbia are investigating the incident.
“She became detached from the hang glider and fell, but how she came to be detached is what we’re still working on,” Barb McLintock, coroner with the Coroners Service of British Columbia, said Thursday.
A call on Thursday seeking comment from Orders’ attorney, Laird Cruickshank, was not immediately returned.
Orders is the owner and operator of Vancouver Hang Gliding. The business’ website said it charges $210 plus tax for an introductory tandem flight on weekends, and $190 plus tax on weekdays.
For $30 extra, the website says, customers can get “video footage of your flight in memory card.”
Godinez-Avila lived in Canada for nine years, having come to the country with her parents from Mexico, Wolbeck said.
Pat Denevan, longtime hang-gliding instructor and the owner of San Francisco Hang Gliding Center and the Mission Soaring Center in California, said people who go hang gliding wear a harness. A strap from the harness is then clipped into a main “hang loop” on the glider’s frame, using a mountaineering carabiner, he said.
A strap also is clipped to a backup loop, Denevan said. The straps are able to take thousands of pounds of force, and gliders are “good for six times the force of gravity,” he said.
“It’s up to the instructor to check that he’s hooked in and that his passenger is hooked in before he takes off,” Denevan said of the typical tandem hang-gliding flight. “This is standard procedure.”
McLintock said that if investigators determine Godinez-Avila’s death was an accident, the coroner’s service would take the lead in the investigation. Investigators are looking into whether pilot error or equipment failure were factors, and experts in the hang-gliding field probably will examine the equipment, she said.
After investigators determine what happened, the coroner’s service hopes to make “recommendations both reasonable and practical to prevent future deaths in similar circumstances,” she said.