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FAA: Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer likely ran out of fuel in 'un-airworthy aircraft'

COURTESY PHOTO - Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer's Cessna rests on the Newport beach on July 8, 2019.

After new information was released about the cause of a July 2019 small plane crash involving Molalla residents, an effort is under way to recall Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer, who piloted the plane.

The crash occurred on July 8, 2019, on the beach in Newport. Sawyer steered the four-seater plane, a Cessna 172M that was manufactured in 1974 and later deemed "unairworthy" by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to public records and as first reported by the Newport News-Times. The probable cause of the crash, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, was that Sawyer did not properly gauge his fuel level, and the plane ran out of fuel.

COURTESY PHOTO - Debbie Reasoner and son Jase sit in Dean Sawyer's small plane for a sightseeing flight July 8, 2019.Sawyer had two passengers aboard, Debbie Reasoner and her biological great-grandson who is also her adopted son, Jase. Sawyer and Reasoner had met the day before through a mutual friend, and the two agreed to a sightseeing flight, Reasoner told the Herald-Pioneer.

But after about a half-hour flying around Depoe Bay, they knew they were going down.

"I prayed as we were falling to earth and told my son over and over how much I loved him," Reasoner said. "We both cried and kept repeating 'I love yous.' I felt that we would not make it, and I pictured Jase watching me die or I watching him die, and it was unbearable and heartbreaking. I covered his eyes and held onto him so he would not see the inevitable, and then we hit the ground."

Reasoner said she then passed in and out of consciousness, but she recalls finding herself lying in the sand with the top part of her body outside the plane and her bottom half still on the plane, attached to the seat by the lap belt. She screamed for her son.

"I heard him crying and my heart melted because I knew that he was alive," Reasoner said. "It's like hearing your newborn cry for the first time."

Jase and Sawyer had minor injuries, but Reasoner suffered more extensive injuries and was transported by a Life Flight helicopter to a Portland hospital.

COURTESY PHOTO - Debbie Reasoner holds an x-ray showing 10 plates and 12 screws that were placed in her arm to hold her bones together.

She suffered a traumatic brain injury, a subdural hematoma, right shoulder subluxation, right humerus fracture and a dislocated right elbow, she said. Her right wrist and hand were sprained with nerve damage to her arm, wrist, hand and right thigh. She had muscle damage to her left knee and a fracture to her left leg. She had to have damaged teeth removed. She also underwent operations on her right arm, having a 10-inch plate and 12 screws inserted.

What happened?

Police originally reported that Sawyer had noticed a mechanical problem with the plane and attempted to return to the Newport airport, but with too little altitude, he planned an emergency landing on the beach.

He told an aviation safety inspector the day after the crash that he pulled back as hard as he could on the yoke to make sure he didn't nose into the ground, and he said that within minutes there were "a bunch of stupid Samaritans at the aircraft."

But despite initial reports, Reasoner would quickly discover that Sawyer may have been responsible for the crash on a plane that shouldn't have been in the air.

When the safety inspector asked Sawyer for maintenance records, Sawyer responded, "I might as well tell you now because you're going to find out anyway, I haven't had an annual on the plane for about three years, I don't have a BFR (biennial flight review) and I don't have a current medical."

With attorney Todd Joseph Huegli, Reasoner filed paperwork with the intention of suing Sawyer for $1.5 million.

But Reasoner soon found herself with no proof that Sawyer was at fault. As she faced foreclosure on her home, she agreed in March 2020 to settle for an amount she cannot disclose, but which came out to less than $5,000 after paying attorney fees, discounted medical bills and costs to keep her home.

Reasoner said she does not feel her attorney represented her well after discovering Sawyer's insurance would not pay out. She also said she felt bullied into accepting the offer, which she calls "a joke."

The next month, the FAA released its report finding Sawyer guilty of eight violations including not having a current medical license, not holding a pilot certificate, not having a flight review within two years, piloting an aircraft with passengers without having made three takeoffs and three landings in the preceding 90 days, operating an aircraft in unairworthy condition, operating an aircraft without registration on board, not having an aircraft inspection within the 12 preceding months and operating an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

The FAA proposed suspending Sawyer's pilot license for 310 days.

After reaching a settlement through Sawyer's attorney, Michael Van Hoomissen, one of the violations — piloting an aircraft with passengers without having made three takeoffs and three landings in the preceding 90 days — was removed, and Sawyer's license was suspended for 200 days. It was returned to Sawyer on Jan. 8, 2021.

The NTSB found that Dean Sawyer's plane ran out of fuel.

The NTSB released its report in December 2020, finding that the probable cause of the crash was "the pilot's improper verification of the fuel quantity during the preflight inspection, which resulted in fuel exhaustion and a subsequent total loss of engine power."

Recovery and recall

But Reasoner didn't find out about the reports until the Newport News-Times obtained public records in March and April 2021.

COURTESY  PHOTO - Debbie Reasoner's arm stitched up following surgery.Now, she's part of an effort led by Newport attorney Susan Elizabeth Reese to recall Sawyer as mayor. Reese established a Facebook page to share information called Committee to Recall Mayor Dean Sawyer. She estimates they've gathered more than 300 signatures, but they'll know for sure when they collect the circulating petitions in September for the early October deadline.

Reasoner wrote a letter, published in the News-Times Aug. 13, suggesting Sawyer is not fit for office and detailing her ongoing struggles because of the crash, including PTSD.

She said she struggled significantly for many months with cognitive impairment and continues to suffer. She said she needs additional surgical intervention on her shoulder and right knee.

She said she is in danger of losing her home and is facing creditors stemming from her inability to work during her recovery.

"Compounding his irresponsible behavior is his insensitivity to our suffering," Reasoner said. "Not once has he apologized or expressed compassion to us."

In response to the letter and in response to questions from the Herald-Pioneer, Sawyer returned a statement of his own, expressing both remorse and sympathy.

"I will say that I am truly sorry that this plane crash occurred," Sawyer said. "I have been praying for Ms. Reasoner from the date of the crash and will continue to do so for her continued healing. If you know me, you know that I mean no ill will toward anyone and I am deeply sorry that she received severe injuries.

"I know that many in the community are disappointed in me, and I understand. I can't say that it doesn't hurt. It has been hard on me and my family. I love this community and have served to protect this community both in my career (as a police officer) and now, as I am your mayor and am committed to putting in the extra hours in an effort to make … Newport a better place for all of us."

Sawyer also contested some of the details of the crash, suggesting that Reasoner was not thrown from the plane as she claimed and that she had removed her shoulder belt just prior to the crash.

Reasoner said she can't know for sure if she was thrown from the plane or if emergency personnel removed her; she only knows that when she regained consciousness, her upper body was lying in the sand and her phone was 30 feet from her. She said she had asked Sawyer at the beginning of the flight where the seatbelt was, and he pointed to the lap belt. She said she did not know that there was also a shoulder belt attached to the plane and therefore did not wear a shoulder belt for the entire flight.

But according to Reasoner, those details don't matter.

"It wouldn't matter if I was dancing around on the plane upside down," Reasoner said. "We should have never been in that plane to begin with. So, whatever happened or didn't happen is neither here nor there."

In response to Sawyer's apology, Reasoner said, "More lies."

"His apology means nothing to me," she said. "It only came after I called him on it."

Reasoner is hoping to find an attorney to help her take legal action against her previous attorney and against Sawyer for child endangerment.

Kristen Wohlers
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