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STETHEM v. ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN

April 19, 2002

RICHARD L. STETHEM, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
V.
THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS. KURT CARLSON, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS, V. THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jackson, District Judge.

  DECISION AND ORDER

On the morning of Friday, June 14, 1985, TransWorld Airlines ("TWA") Flight No. 847, a Boeing 727, took off from Athens, Greece, bound for Rome, Italy, with a full complement of 143 passengers and a crew of eight. On board were U.S. citizens Robert Stethem, Kurt Carlson, Stuart Dahl, Jeffery Ingalls, Clinton Suggs, Tony Watson, and Kenneth Bowen. All were U.S. military personnel, enroute back to the United States from various assignments abroad and coincidentally aboard the same plane traveling in civilian dress.

Shortly after takeoff the plane was commandeered at gunpoint by at least two hijackers, also armed with hand grenades, who forced the plane to divert first to a landing for fuel in Beirut, then on to Algiers, and back once more to Beirut, finally landing dramatically at night in Beirut about 16 hours after the flight had commenced. During the journey several of the servicemen were brutally beaten by their captors. One was executed by gunshot to the head and his body shoved from the plane onto the tarmac at the Beirut airport. Eventually debarked from the plane as prisoners of a local militia in Beirut, the surviving servicemen were held captive by confederates of the hijackers until June 30, 1985, when they were released to Syrian military personnel and ultimately flown home.

The airborne portion of their ordeal was characterized for some of them by excruciating pain from repeated beatings, and for all of them by stark terror in expectation of either an imminent violent death or prolonged captivity. While imprisoned in Beirut they were confined under execrable conditions, tormented with daily threats of torture and death, and vilified as citizens of a despised nation, all the while uncertain of their fate.

I.

Robert Dean Stethem (Deceased)

Robert Stethem, the murder victim, was identified by the hijackers early in the flight as a U.S. serviceman. He was, in fact, a 23-year-old U.S. Navy petty officer, trained as a diver and underwater construction specialist. In June, 1985, Stethem and fellow divers assigned to Underwater Construction Team No. 1 ("UCT1"), stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, were aboard TWA 847 enroute back to the U.S. from Athens where they had spent several weeks repairing an underwater structure at a U.S. military installation nearby.

First thought to be a U.S. Marine by the hijackers (who never totally abandoned their suspicions), Stethem was taken to the front of the aircraft, his arms tightly bound, and beaten about the head and shoulders repeatedly with a pistol or an armrest wrenched from a passenger seat. He bled profusely. Although only semisensible, losing blood, and in obvious pain for much of the trip, he apparently never lost consciousness altogether. Upon the second landing in Beirut, Stethem was the hostage the hijackers selected for their first execution, partly to emphasize their insistence that their various demands be taken seriously, partly to manifest their hostility to Americans generally. The forward passenger door was thrown open, and one of the hijackers placed his gun to Stethem's head and fired a shot through his skull. As he was about to die he was heard to mutter an exclamation — "Oh, God" — indicating that he was aware of what was happening. His body was pushed from the open doorway to fall upon the pavement beneath the plane where it remained for several hours.*fn1

Stethem's survivors include his father and mother, Richard and Patricia Stethem; a sister, Sheryl (Stethem) Sierralta; and two brothers, Kenneth and Patrick Stethem. Although none were his dependents, the family is a remarkably close one. Filial and fraternal affection between Robert, his parents, and siblings was both mutual and intense.

The Stethems are a Navy family. Richard Stethem retired as a Senior Chief Petty Officer after a 25-year career, most of it on sea duty, and worked thereafter as a civilian employee of the Navy Department until 1995. Patricia met Richard while she herself was a sailor. Kenneth joined the Navy at age 19, became a SEAL, and retired in April, 2000, after 20 years. Patrick enlisted the day before TWA 847 was hijacked, followed his deceased brother into underwater construction, and remained a Navy diver for nearly 10 years.

The surviving Stethems last saw Robert at a family reunion in May, 1985, but were together again in June, 1985, to follow the saga of TWA 847 on CNN at the family home in Waldorf, Maryland, all the while besieged by an insatiable media horde at their doorstep. They first learned that Robert was the murdered U.S. serviceman thrown from the plane when Kenneth identified the distinctive shirt on the body on the tarmac shown on television as a shirt he had given his younger brother.

All of the Stethem family have been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. According to the psychologist who made the diagnosis, their grief at Robert's death remains unresolved to the present and will probably never subside.*fn2

Plaintiffs Richard Stethem and Patricia Stethem, as father and mother of Robert Stethem, are the duly appointed co-personal representatives of Robert's estate. Both are U.S. citizens, as are his brothers and sister. They bring this action in the nature of a wrongful death and survival action for such damages as may be recoverable from defendants under the FSIA by reason of Robert's false imprisonment as a hostage aboard TWA 847, his torture by beating prior to his death, and his extrajudicial killing that can only be characterized as an intentional, deliberate and premeditated act of murder. These damages include, as established by numerous prior decisions under the FSIA, the net economic loss to Robert's estate; compensation for his ante mortem pain and suffering; solatium for his immediate surviving kin; and punitive damages to chasten the perpetrators of these acts of terrorism and deter their repetition by others.

Kurt and Cheryl Carlson

Kurt and Cheryl Carlson are U.S. citizens, married since 1969, who reside in Illinois, where Kurt Carlson is a building contractor. In 1985, Carlson was a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, and he volunteered for an active duty assignment in Cairo, Egypt, to make a preliminary survey of facilities in preparation for forthcoming joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises. On June 14, 1985, Carlson was enroute home from Egypt aboard TWA 847 when it landed in Athens where Robert Stethem and his companions boarded.*fn3 Carlson, traveling alone, had acquired a standby seat in the first class cabin.

Ten minutes into the flight the hijackers stormed the forward section of the plane, assaulted a flight attendant, and, brandishing both a pistol and hand grenades, shouted in English, "Americans come to die!"

Carlson surreptitiously slipped his military identification out of his pocket into the seat cushion, but was eventually discovered to be in the U.S. armed forces by the hijackers following an enforced passport collection in which the absence of a passport in his name was noted.*fn4 At first, however, he was forced into a seat in the after cabin with all other passengers, and, like them, compelled to assume an excruciatingly uncomfortable position Carlson describes to this day as the "847 position" — hands behind head; head down, with elbows on knees — and to remain so, in total silence, whenever the plane was airborne.

Following Stethem's death on the ground in Beirut, Carlson and all but one of the Navy divers were turned over to a contingent of local militia (known as Amal) who were confederated with the hijackers. They were held captive — and periodically tormented — for approximately two weeks in a filth-ridden basement dungeon in a combat zone somewhere in West Beirut.

Like most of the rest of the U.S. population, Cheryl Carlson followed the saga of TWA 847 on television, apprehensive that she would never see her husband again. When he did return she became aware of how profoundly the experience had affected him, and she has suffered with him through the manifestations of the posttraumatic stress syndrome with which he remains afflicted to the present — irrational fear, sleeplessness, nightmares, extreme irritability — and which has had a markedly deleterious effect on their marriage relationship.

Stuart and Martha Dahl

Stuart and Martha Dahl are U.S. citizens, have been married since 1974, and live in Virginia. Stuart Dahl ...


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