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Aircraft mechanic gets time served

By Taft Wireback Staff Writer
News & Record

GREENSBORO -- A former Peruvian naval commander is the latest ex-mechanic at TIMCO sentenced on charges stemming from an investigation of illegal immigrants working for the aircraft maintenance company at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

U.S. District Judge N. Carlton Tilley Jr. sentenced Percy A. Vega, 54, to 110 days behind bars for possessing a fraudulent green card, the amount of time he has already served since his March 8 arrest.

Vega is a retired military officer known during his days in the Peruvian armed forces as a friend to U.S. drug agents fighting traffickers in cocaine and other narcotics in Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley. His family said they fled Peru after drug traffickers threatened his life in the early 1990s.

Vega was among 27 people affiliated with TIMCO arrested on immigration charges at PTI in early March, many because their once-legal visas expired.

Vega's lawyer, Walter L. Jones of Greensboro, said he did not fit that category and should not have been arrested as an illegal immigrant. Vega is married to a Cuban exile and has an application before immigration authorities to change his residency status, Jones said.

"Our position is that Mr. Vega was lawfully in this country at the time of his arrest," Jones said.

Jones acknowledged that Vega had broken the law by having the falsified green card but said his client never used it.

Vega initially was charged also with possessing a false Social Security card and with not having qualifications to test for a federal aircraft-repair license that he received. Those charges were dropped several months ago in a plea bargain.

The arrests of TIMCO-affiliated workers at PTI were part of Operation Tarmac, a nationwide initiative by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to keep illegal immigrants out of the aviation industry.

About half those arrested also faced criminal charges involving false documents, fraud and other misdeeds. Most pleaded guilty as Vega did; three were sentenced last week to terms ranging from time served to an additional six weeks in prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Arnold L. Husser said the government was satisfied with the sentence of time served for Vega, but he said the government viewed it as a serious case involving aviation safety and national security.

He noted it was a particular concern that Vega held a repair license that he was not qualified to test for.

Vega passed the subsequent "A&P" test, but Husser still had qualms. He noted the labor contractor that hired Vega on TIMCO's behalf was involved in the fatal crash of a US Airways Express flight in Charlotte in 2003.

"The same company that he (Vega) worked for, S.M.A.R.T., was the company that provided maintenance on that aircraft," said Husser, a licensed pilot.

Husser noted the crash was partly attributed to the work of an "unqualified mechanic who rigged the cable" that helped cause US Airways Express Flight 5481 to spiral out of control, killing all 21 aboard.

Jones, Vega's lawyer, said that at TIMCO his client never worked on engines, structural components "or anything that could cause that plane to crash." He worked on the interior of the aircraft doing such tasks as "making sure seats were tightened down," Jones said.

Vega's daughter, Lisseth Mocoso, said in an earlier interview that her father was a whiz at aircraft repair, spent years as a military pilot and was fully qualified to hold the A&P license.

After Tuesday's hearing, she said she was relieved her father's criminal case was over and anxious to get his status resolved with immigration authorities.

"He was never illegally living here in the United States," she said.

The elder Vega will be transferred out of criminal custody to immigration authorities, who will hold him for a deportation hearing. His immigration lawyer, Jeremy McKinney of Greensboro, said he plans to file a petition asking immigration authorities to free Vega on bond while he awaits a final hearing.

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