Ric Gillespie, founder of the group leading the Amelia Earhart expedition, shows off the autonomous underwater vehicle used in the search for her missing plane.
CASPER, Wyo. >> A federal judge on Friday dismissed a Wyoming man's claims that an aircraft recovery group secretly found wreckage of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart's missing airplane in the South Pacific but kept it quiet so it could continue raising funds for the search.
District Judge Scott Skavdahl dismissed the lawsuit that Timothy Mellon filed last year against the Pennsylvania-based International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery and its executive director, Richard E. Gillespie.
Mellon claimed the group found Earhart's Lockheed Electra in 2010 but kept it secret to collect $1 million from him for the search. He is the son of the late philanthropist Paul Mellon.
Earhart was trying to become the first female aviator to circle the globe when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared in the South Pacific in 1937.
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery has staged repeated expeditions to look for her plane, narrowing its search most recently to the waters around the Kiribati atoll of Nikumaroro, about 1,800 miles south of Hawaii. Lawyers for the group and Gillespie have maintained Timothy Mellon's lawsuit was absurd. They said discovering conclusive proof of Earhart's plane would be far more lucrative through film and other publicity than continuing to raise money to search for it.
Expert witnesses for Mellon filed statements in court earlier this year saying they saw similarities between parts of Earhart's plane and objects shown on video of the ocean floor from the aircraft recovery group's 2010 search. However, in his ruling Friday, Skavdahl said underwater video showing objects that may appear similar to airplane parts wasn't good enough to keep Mellon's lawsuit alive.
"To be sure, there is dispute about what can be seen in the 2010 expedition footage and the source of any man-made objects identified. And whether Defendants found the wreckage in 2010 is disputed," Skavdahl wrote. "However, there is no evidence in the record that, in fact, the Earhart wreckage lies on the ocean floor off of Nikumaroro and defendants knew, or should have known, that fact upon review of footage from (the expedition.)"
Gillespie said Friday the group hopes to move on and continue its search. He said Mellon's lawsuit has cast a shadow over its fundraising efforts for another planned expedition to search waters around Nikumaroro this fall. "We have no desire to fight with Mr. Mellon any further on this," Gillespie said. "We're willing to bury the hatchet and move forward to really find out what happened to Amelia Earhart."
Gillespie said he's frequently asked why it's important to find conclusive proof of what happened to Earhart, now close to 80 years after her disappearance. "People still make decisions in their lives because of the example that Amelia Earhart set. And so, in that sense, she's still very much alive in the American consciousness," Gillespie said. "Because she matters to people, her fate matters to people. We don't want to leave that door dark."
Tim Stubson, a Casper lawyer representing Mellon, said it's too soon to tell how his client will respond to Skavdahl's ruling. "Obviously we're disappointed with the judge's decision," Stubson said. "But as far as appeal and those sorts of things, we need to study the order more closely, and Mr. Mellon needs to give some thought on what next steps are."