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A Fugitive Truth

Jerry Ambrozuk’s girlfriend went down with the plane. He went down to Texas. Twenty-four years later, he was brought to justice in Kalispell. But for one investigator, the case may never be closed.

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On Aug. 30, 2006, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office finally caught up with Jaroslaw “Jerry” Czeslaw Ambrozuk, a fugitive for the past 24 years. On Aug. 22, 1982, Ambrozuk and his girlfriend, Dianne Babcock, intentionally crash-landed a Cessna 150 in Bitterroot Lake, 25 miles west of Kalispell. The teenage couple had apparently planned to run away from home and throw would-be searchers off their trail by sinking their plane in the 260-foot-deep lake. But the lake landing went awry, Babcock drowned, and Ambrozuk ran, becoming a wanted man, accused of negligent homicide and theft. The circumstances surrounding the crash have remained in question all these years, and have never been fully resolved, even after the case against Ambrozuk came to an end this spring. Ambrozuk and his friends Tom Pawlowski and Carolyn McCall declined to speak with the Independent. Calls to Dianne Babcock’s father, Gerald Babcock, and Ambrozuk’s parents were not returned. Using transcripts of phone conversations Ambrozuk had with a friend while on the lam, letters to the court, interviews with law enforcement and investigation records, the Independent has pieced together two views of what might have happened in 1982.

•••

Flathead County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Dupont couldn’t have known it then, but the case he’d just been assigned was going to stretch all the way to the end of his career.
Two teenagers flying a Cessna 150 from Penticton, British Columbia to Vancouver had been missing for just over a week. The search for their plane had blanketed media on both sides of the border.

The couple, 18-year-old Dianne Babcock and 19-year-old Jaroslaw “Jerry” Czeslaw Ambrozuk, both of Burnaby, British Columbia, had rented the plane in Vancouver and flown to Okanagan Beach, British Columbia where they spent the night. They were supposed to fly back to Vancouver the next day. When they didn’t return, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) figured the small plane had gone down somewhere in mountainous British Columbia, a not uncommon occurrence.

But then a friend of Ambrozuk’s, Tom Pawlowski, told the RCMP he had received a call from Ambrozuk, who told his friend he’d crashed the plane in Bitterroot Lake, about 25 miles west of Kalispell, the night of Aug. 22, and that Babcock had drowned.

Law enforcement suspected the calls were part of a hoax when initial inspection of the lake by sheriff’s deputies turned up no evidence of a crash, and summer residents in shoreline cabins reported nothing unusual.

But the calls from the man claiming to be Ambrozuk continued, and then reports came in of a stranger seen near the lake matching Ambrozuk’s description. The stranger wore wet clothes, but carried a dry duffle bag.

Dupont, a pilot, was one of the deputies put on the case.

Further searches of the lakeshore uncovered a garbage bag with a rope attached, sealed with electrical tape and torn open at the bottom. Deputies also found evidence of a recent campfire, and lying in its ashes aviation-specific wires and a gust lock—a device to keep a parked plane from moving in the wind.

“I was 90-percent sure the gust lock came off a Cessna 150,” Dupont remembers. He went to the Kalispell airport and compared it to a gust lock on another Cessna 150. Dupont still isn’t sure why Ambrozuk would have taken the gust lock from the plane, but when he made the comparison, the gust locks matched.

The search for the plane began with fish finders, but investigators didn’t find anything that way.

At the time, Dupont says, the story of the missing plane was one of the biggest news stories in Canada, and when a man from Vancouver saw a report, he volunteered to bring in sonar equipment.

Dupont says several days were spent cutting red tape between governments, but the day the equipment was flown in, searchers saw something on the sonar that looked like a plane. The search crew dragged an anchor over the spot and brought it back up.

“We pulled the anchor up, and it had red and white paint on it [the colors of the missing Cessna], and I said ‘well that’s got to be it.’”

But the sonar operator warned that a lot of old cars are red and white also, and so they had his remote-controlled underwater camera flown in.

“The bottom of that lake has got about 4 feet of this—pardon the expression, but we call it loon shit—fine silt that’s really thick,” Dupont says.

The propellers on the camera kicked up the silt, making it hard to see. The first day using the camera, searchers found nothing. But the next day, Sept. 16, they carefully eased the camera near the object and guided it around what turned out, in fact, to be a Cessna 150.

On the screen in the pontoon boat above, Dupont could see a layer of silt all over it.

“It was sitting there as if it had been parked,” Dupont recalls.

The pilot’s side door was open, and Dianne Babcock’s body, preserved perfectly in the 40-degree water, leaned into the empty seat, her slack seatbelt still around her waist and shoulder. An autopsy would later show she’d suffered no injuries but a broken clavicle, and that she had recently had an abortion.

Ambrozuk’s story checked out, as far as it went, but Dupont wondered why he had apparently left Babcock behind to drown.

Over the next 24 years, he would continue to ponder that question.

•••

When searchers finally found Babcock’s body, a warrant was issued for Ambrozuk’s arrest. He was charged with theft of the rented plane and negligent homicide.

During his initial call to Pawlowski, Ambrozuk told his friend he was in a town near the crash site, with the word “white” in the name, possibly Whitefish, according to investigators. The RCMP traced his second call, placed Aug. 31, to an industrial area in New York City. Dupont believes Ambrozuk flew there from Glacier International Airport, noting that airport security then was nothing like it is now, and that no one would have been looking for him yet.

Ambrozuk’s third and, as far as anyone knows, last call to Pawlowski was tapped and recorded by the RCMP.

During their approximately hour-and-a-half conversation, Ambrozuk said the crash had been planned by both teenagers, and gave clues to their intentions.

“We had plans and maps…” he tells Pawlowski.

“For what?” Pawlowski asks.

“For, for that, to the route, right to the lake, it was drawn out, with the route and everything. Most of the maps I burnt…but the one, the last one to the lake I kept. But I got my stuff swiped now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was hitchhiking, and this guy, I spent about a day with him and stuff, and then later, I got all my shit—my money and everything’s gone.”

“Really?”

[…]

“Well, nothing I can do about it.”

“Just like your dad would expect.”

“Yeah, I know, that’s what I mean.”

“He would have expected that,” says Pawlowski.

“That’s, that’s the main reason why I wouldn’t want to come back,” Ambrozuk says.

This conversational detour to Ambrozuk’s relationship with his father reveals a thread running through the facts of Ambrozuk’s case that may help explain the crash and Ambrozuk’s subsequent disappearance.

Tadeusz Ambrozuk, Jerry Ambrozuk’s father, along with his wife, Halina, never moved from their son’s childhood home, for fear that if their son returned, he wouldn’t be able to find them. Tadeusz immigrated to Canada from Poland in 1971 when Ambrozuk would have been either 7 or 8. In a letter Tadeusz submitted to the Flathead County District Court in August 2006, after his son had finally been apprehended, Tadeusz says the lengthy immigration process forced him to migrate alone, leaving his family in Poland for three years while he tried to build a better life for them in Canada.

In his letter, Tadeusz notes that his own father died in battle in 1939, while he and his twin sister were infants.

“Maybe never having the fatherly figure in my childhood could have been a contributing factor to the way I raised my own children,” Taduesz writes, admitting that he may have been too strict, and hinting at a possible reason for his son’s flight.

But despite a possibly overbearing father, Ambrozuk never seemed like the type of kid to steal a plane, crash it and run from the law.

He excelled in sports, including rugby, volleyball, track and wrestling, had an interest in science and electronics, and hoped to become a professional pilot someday.  He obtained his pilot’s license at age 18, and took his father with him on his very first solo flight around British Columbia’s lower mainland. His second flight landed him in Bitterroot Lake.

In a letter to the court written on Ambrozuk’s behalf, Pawlowski, now a coroner in British Columbia, says he became friends with Jerry in 1978, and with Babcock in 1980. Babcock, he writes, was, “always smiling…full of wit and gentle humor.” In her graduating year she would often say, half-joking, that she planned to run for Prime Minister someday.

She and Ambrozuk started dating in the spring of 1981.
And while Tadeusz only hints at his own strictness, Pawlowski puts a finer point on it, saying Ambrozuk’s parents had essentially forbidden him from dating.

Tadeusz, Pawlowski writes, “believed that a girlfriend would pose a distraction from school…In retrospect, it may seem bizarre how opposed they were to Jerry’s having a girlfriend.”

Tadeusz notes that his son and Babcock dated “secretly,” and that he and Halina met her only twice, once “at Jerry’s friend Tom’s home while they were studying after school one evening,” and once just before the couple’s fateful flight. Pawlowski recalls that first meeting in his letter. It occurred in the spring of 1981, apparently not long after Jerry and Babcock started dating. Pawlowski and Babcock were on the verge of graduating high school, and the three friends “were very much in a festive mood all the time—full of optimism about our futures,” Pawlowski writes. Pawlowski had been assigned chores to help finish building his family’s new house, and Ambrozuk often came home with him after school to help, sometimes, as that day, in the company of Babcock.

Ambrozuk’s parents apparently spotted his car parked at the Pawlowski home that day, and came in to investigate. Upon finding their son and Babcock “studying” in Pawlowski’s bedroom, Tadeusz and Ambrozuk “had a heated verbal exchange, Jerry’s father attacked him, and a scuffle ensued.”

But despite the disapproval of Ambrozuk’s parents, his relationship with the girl he nicknamed “skinny”—she called him Janek—continued to deepen, according to Pawlowski.

“Jerry refused to end it, and kept dropping hints to me that Dianne was the ideal life companion for him and that no other girls measured up to her,” he writes.

In this version of the story, the crash was the thwarted plan of teenage lovers in over their heads, a sort of Romeo and Juliet tragedy in which the young romantics, their relationship threatened by an overbearing father, take flight in an attempt to disappear and start a new life together. Instead, Juliet died alone and Romeo disappeared. 

•••

Ambrozuk told Pawlowski he chose Bitterroot Lake carefully. It was as far as he could fly without refueling, big enough to spot and land in, but small enough that he and Babcock could swim to shore.

He had asked his flight instructor what would happen, and what to do, if he ever had to land on a body of water. He was told it would take about 20 minutes for a plane to sink—plenty of time for someone to get out. The best way to crash-land in water, his instructor told him, was to slow down as much as possible, and then, just before landing, pull the nose up so the tail hits first, slowing the plane even more before the landing gear hits the water.

But Ambrozuk had misjudged when the sun would set that time of year, and when he and Babcock got to Bitterroot Lake around 10 p.m., with almost no fuel left, it was pitch black.

They hit the water going too fast—Dupont believes between 50 and 55 miles per hour—and, according to what Ambrozuk told Pawlowski, the landing gear hit first.

“It just flipped right over…” he told his friend.

He says he was thrown out the window, apparently not wearing his seatbelt, and tries to explain the confusion he experienced once he realized he was in the water.

“Half of you is unconscious or something, and you can taste like the, you can taste the blood inside your mouth and your nose, right. Like especially in your nose,” Ambrozuk says.

“Was she unconscious when it happened?” Pawlowski asks.

“No,” Ambrozuk says, “she was calling out. I started yelling ‘Skinny! Where are you? Are you okay?’ you know. And she goes ‘Janek, Janek, I can’t get my seatbelt off.’”

Ambrozuk talks about how he expected to have plenty of time to exit the plane, but says as he treaded water in the dark, he could see the plane, upside down in the water, sinking before his eyes.

He says he swam to the plane, and had difficulty getting to Babcock’s door, cutting his leg and possibly breaking a rib in the process.

“I opened the door and all the—all it did was let more water in.”

He says he could see Babcock in the plane, struggling to get her seatbelt off. “There was no goddamn time. I had about three or four seconds.”

Talking to Pawlowski, he puzzles over how she could be “so stupid” not to be able to get her seatbelt off.

“It was mostly my fault,” he says, “but, what her big—her fault is, she couldn’t even take the seatbelt off. I tell you, all this nagging that the old man does about seatbelts and here one day it happens—seatbelt kills her. Crazy isn’t it?”

When the plane was pulled from the water three weeks after the crash, investigators would find that Babcock’s shoulder harness had been buckled the wrong way, so that the release was against her stomach. Had she been hanging upside down, as Ambrozuk described, her weight would have been pushing against the clasp, making it difficult to undo, especially with a broken clavicle.

At the beginning of his conversation with Pawlowski, Ambrozuk sounds somewhat callous toward Babcock, not only calling her stupid for being unable to get the seatbelt off, but also saying she only “tagged along” for the trip, and suggesting that any love between them wasn’t necessarily mutual.

But later he says, “It’s like half of you dying, you know…You can’t tell yourself that she’s not here…I was hoping they’d find the plane and she’d be gone, she wouldn’t be in the plane, and she’d still be okay somewhere.”

Ambrozuk says the swim to shore seemed to take a long time, and that when he got there he was shaking and blue.

“You have everything planned and everything and all of a sudden, one thing screwed up,” Ambrozuk tells Pawlowski, describing how he felt once he got ashore. “And now…you’re all by yourself, all alone and you know, it’s like you’re in the middle of a desert, there’s no water, and, and no compass.”

•••

Jim Dupont never put much stock in Ambrozuk’s version of events.

The key to Dupont’s view is that he believes Ambrozuk’s plane landed right side up, not upside down.

“I’ll totally say he’s wrong,” Dupont says.

He says the tail would have been smashed had the plane flipped, but instead, the right wing took a beating. This, he says, suggests the right side landing gear hit first, causing the plane to swing simultaneously downward and to the right, putting the brunt of the crash on the damaged wing.

This scenario gives Ambrozuk more time before the plane sinks, and a much less confusing situation.

And in that light, Dupont says, “I don’t think Mr. Ambrozuk did much to save her, and I’ve got a lot of reasons to believe it.”

“Mr. Ambrozuk managed to get his bags of clothes out. Not hers, but his. We know they had several hundreds of dollars, or thousands of dollars. That, as far as I know, was in her purse,” Dupont says. “[He] got that out, and got a lot of things out of the airplane. Except her.”

“The madly in love bullshit is total bullshit to me,” Dupont continues. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in love, but at 19 I would have went down with the airplane, with her. You know that crazy infatuation when you’re in your first love. I wouldn’t have let her go down without drowning myself trying to get her out.”

In 1982, Dupont didn’t have a compelling theory as to why Ambrozuk would have let his girlfriend drown. He hoped to eventually track the fugitive down and find out, but that quickly became a dim possibility.

Ambrozuk’s last known location was Dallas, Texas, where he had made his final call to Pawlowski. But it didn’t seem to Dupont that authorities there were putting much time into searching for the fugitive.

“I tried like hell to get the sheriff to let me go to Texas,” Dupont says. “But we were a broker-than-broke sheriff’s office at the time. To fly down there and put me up in a hotel would have been half our budget.”

•••

Ambrozuk did well as a fugitive. He was dark complexioned, which the Texas sun exaggerated, and had jet black hair and a mustache. When he first called Pawlowski from Dallas, he used the name Lewis Gomez, indicating he was wary of a tap on the phone, and may have been trying to pass himself off as Hispanic, which would have been inconspicuous in Dallas, and unlikely to make anyone suspicious he might be a Polish-born runaway from Canada.

In 1983, he was arrested in Dallas for burglarizing a car, but was booked under the name and, most importantly, the Social Security number of Michael Lee Smith. At that time, people did not necessarily get assigned Social Security numbers at birth, but often waited until they began working to obtain one. Shortly after arriving in the United States as a child, Ambrozuk somehow acquired the birth certificate of Michael Lee Smith, who had likely died before being assigned a Social Security number, according to investigators. He later used that certificate to get a Social Security number, making it possible to get a driver’s license, a passport and a new identity.

Ambrozuk, as Smith, apparently had just one other brush with the law, a 1984 DUI. After that, he melted into society.

In 1986 he graduated from Eastfield College in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Texas, with an associate degree. In 1990, he finished his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington.

After finishing college, Ambrozuk got into computer programming, and had a hand in several successful business that eventually landed him in a 3,100-square-foot home with a pool in an upscale neighborhood in Plano, Texas, in 2000.

According to authorities, a computer consulting company he ran from his home had begun designing computers for Honda racing cars in Japan, to where Ambrozuk frequently traveled. He drove a $70,000 Dodge Viper.

Despite his success, several of Ambrozuk’s Texas friends described him as a haunted man in letters to the court.

Carolyn McCall says she knew Ambrozuk for more than three years. The return address on her letter matches a mailing address used by Ambrozuk on records in Collin County, Texas, before he bought his Plano home.

“Jerry would speak freely of Dianne with whom he had found love many years ago,” McCall writes. “I would often ask Jerry, in the time since losing Dianne, why he had never found another love. He would respond, ‘No one has ever come close to what Dianne and I had together.’”

“It always seemed,” McCall writes, “that he had never gotten over Dianne.”

Dupont, who became sheriff of Flathead County in 1992, had never quite gotten over the case, either. Twice in the 1990s Ambrozuk was featured on television’s “America’s Most Wanted.”

“We had a lot of tips,” Dupont says.

But none led to Ambrozuk.

In August of 2006, Dupont, who was preparing to retire as sheriff at the end of the year, took a short vacation with his new business partner in a security company to visit a prospective job site.

“We were having a beer one night,” Dupont says, when his friend asked if there was anything he’d left undone as sheriff.

“I really only had one major crime that we never caught the guy,” says Dupont. He proceeded to tell his friend the Ambrozuk story.

“We got back on a Friday, and Monday morning is when I got the call at my desk.”

The call was from a woman saying she had met a man named Michael Smith a few months before on an online dating service. The man told her a story that seemed to match that of Jerry Ambrozuk, whose profile she found on the “America’s Most Wanted” website.

By the woman’s description of Smith, “I knew right away it was Jerry Ambrozuk,” Dupont says. “I just kind of looked at the phone like, ‘What’s going on here?’”

On Aug. 30, 2006, 24 years and eight days after Babcock drowned and Ambrozuk disappeared, Texas law enforcement officials showed up on the doorstep of a man known as Michael Lee Smith.

They asked if he was Jaroslaw Ambrozuk.

He answered yes, asked for a lawyer, and within a few days was transported to the Flathead County Jail.

•••

Dupont hoped Ambrozuk’s arrest was his chance to learn at last if the crash, and its aftermath, had transpired as he’d supposed.

Based on his interactions with Ambrozuk after the arrest, he developed a theory about why Ambrozuk would have left Babcock to drown in Bitterroot Lake.

“Did you ever hear of Dr. Hare?” Dupont asks.

Dr. Robert Hare is the criminal psychologist who devised the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R. The checklist is the test most commonly used worldwide to assess psychopathy. NATO uses it to screen potential troops.

Dupont is a fan of the checklist, and has used it to assess suspects over the years.

He says Ambrozuk does not display emotions in his facial expressions or body language, the way most people naturally do.

“This guy is a sociopath,” Dupont concludes. “He’s got no conscience whatsoever…He’s cold as a turkey.”

With that belief in mind, Dupont reconstructs the scenario under which Ambrozuk might have left Babcock to drown.

“She was madly in love with Jerry, but I don’t think Jerry was madly in love with her,” Dupont says. “I’m sure he did like her, but I don’t think to live the rest of his life with her was his number-one priority. And then a week, two, three weeks before [the crash] she more than likely told him she was pregnant. He probably didn’t like that.”

From that assumption, Dupont speculates that Babcock found out about Ambrozuk’s plans to leave the country and begged to go with him, but didn’t tell him about the abortion. Dupont thinks Ambrozuk allowed her to accompany him, thinking that she was still pregnant.

“I certainly don’t think that Jerry intended her to die,” Dupont says. “I think he would have left her down the road. I think when she was having difficulty getting out, he just found it convenient, and didn’t help her.”

In Dupont’s version of the story, Ambrozuk is no Romeo, but a Machiavellian character, concerned only with self-preservation.

Of course, not all the evidence supports Dupont’s hypothesis. Pat Walsh, a detective with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department, believes the plane did flip, as Ambrozuk said.

And there’s a letter submitted to the court by Ambrozuk’s attorneys from Kalispell psychologist Edward H. Trontel.

“Mr. Ambrozuk was capable of feelings of warmth, concern, love and remorse,” Trontel writes. “His description of his thoughts and feelings during the first several years after the incident suggested deep grieving…”

In other words, Trontel disputes Dupont’s assessment of Ambrozuk as a sociopath. And Ambrozuk may have had a perfectly good reason to want to escape his life at home.

“Because Mr. Ambrozuk shared his father’s resolute black-and-white way of thinking, compromise was emotionally impossible,” Trontel continues. “He could not engage in open defiance nor could he simply run away. The defendant seemed to view his father as so powerful that only a complete disconnection would leave him free.”

A trial, Dupont hoped, might resolve the dissonance between the two stories behind Ambrozuk’s crash. But the trial never occurred.

After several months of legal wrangling, the prosecution and defense struck a deal, in which Ambrozuk pleaded guilty to felony charges of criminal endangerment and criminal mischief. He received two concurrent 10-year suspended sentences. He has also been ordered to pay $34,500 in restitution to the Babcocks and the company from which he stole the plane. He is currently in a Texas jail, where he awaits trial for federal passport-fraud charges related to his assumption of a false identity.

The deal, Dupont says, makes sense for Flathead County. Had the county attorney somehow proved Ambrozuk did intentionally leave Babcock to drown, and convicted him of negligent homicide, he still would have gotten about the same sentence.

Knowing that Ambrozuk would likely avoid cross-examination, Dupont visited Ambrozuk in his Flathead County jail cell a few weeks after the initial arrest to seek the truth on his own.

“I tried to get him to tell me what happened,” Dupont says. “I even had a recorder and said, Jerry I’m here strictly to talk to you without any legal recourse whatsoever. I’ll even tape that I’m saying that, that I know this is illegal. I don’t care what you say to me, I’m not going to use it in a court of law, I just want to know what happened,” Dupont says.

Ambrozuk, he says, ignored his queries, instead talking about his dissatisfaction with his cell.

During his trial, Ambrozuk read a statement in which he apologized to the Babcock family, reiterating how fast the plane was sinking, and explaining that he was able to get his bag only because it floated to the surface once the plane had sunk. After Ambrozuk read his statement, Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan asked him why he’d left Babcock behind. Ambrozuk answered only that he was not in a rational state of mind after the crash. He never provided a reason for running away beyond saying that he and Babcock planned to start a new life.

Corrigan also noted that Dianne Babcock’s father was unhappy with the plea deal, and wanted Ambrozuk punished more severely. Her mother died several years ago in a car accident on a trip to Dianne’s grave.

Ambrozuk has, according to Pat Sherlock, his lawyer, rekindled his relationship with his parents after 24 years.

Meanwhile, Dupont, although he did finally get his man, still wonders exactly what happened on Aug. 22, 1982, and why. But the whole truth of that matter may have gone down with the Cessna 24 years ago. Even Jerry Ambrozuk may be unable to dredge it up now.
 

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