The man who crashed a plane in Little Bitterroot Lake in 1982, left his girlfriend to drown and then disappeared for the next 24 years is the focus of the television show “Dateline NBC” tonight (Friday).
The two-hour show, “At the Bottom of the Lake,” will feature an exclusive interview with Jaroslaw “Jerry” Ambrozuk, who will tell his story for the first time to longtime “Dateline” correspondent Keith Morrison about the crash and living a double life as a fugitive for decades.
Dianne Babcock of Vancouver, British Columbia, died in the underwater plane crash near Kalispell.
During his sentencing in May 2007 in Flathead District Court, Amborzuk said he and Babcock — he was just 19 and she was nearly 19 — had worked out a plan over several months to run away and start a new life in the United States, according to the Daily Inter Lake’s coverage of the case.
“Dianne and I fell in love, and we did a foolish thing in running away,” Ambrozuk told then-Flathead District Judge Stewart Stadler. “I regrettably realize now that was a silly mistake. Taking the plane, ditching it in the water, was not a responsible thing to do, and I’m truly sorry for … her death.”
Ambrozuk insisted he “did make every attempt to try to save Dianne.”
Under questioning from then-Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan, Ambrozuk explained he was “catapulted” through the windshield when the plane hit the surface of Little Bitterroot Lake and flipped over, nose-to-tail. He said he was temporarily underwater, then was disoriented when he resurfaced near the tail of the upside-down plane. He said he heard Dianne yelling that she could not get her seat belt off.
The windows “were totally removed at the time,” he said, and the plane was sinking. He said he jumped over the tail to what he thought was the passenger side, but believes now that he reached the pilot’s side instead. When he opened that door, he said she was on the other side. The opened door combined with the broken windshield and open windows “dramatically increased the flow of water to the plane,” Ambrozuk said, “and it sank in literally three or four seconds; the plane was totally underneath the water.”
He did not swim away and leave her to drown, he emphasized.
“Why did you run away from the lake?” Corrigan pointedly asked Ambrozuk during his sentencing. “Why didn’t you stay there and deal with this? You could have saved these families, your family included, a lot of anguish if you’d just stayed there and dealt with it that night.”
Ambrozuk admitted Corrigan was “probably absolutely right,” but tried to explain his frame of mind.
“When you see somebody that you were in love with, and were there with her for a year and a half, and got so close with her, and she dies in front of you,” Ambrozuk said, “I think it turns your mind upside down. You don’t do rational things.”
He said he was scared, and “out of my mind” for two or more years, and found “the will to live was very hard to control.”
After he realized there was no saving his girlfriend, Ambrozuk made his way to shore with a duffel bag, and then disappeared for the next 24 years. In Texas, he built a successful career and used an assumed identity to apply for a passport for international travel.
Ambrozuk avoided a jury trial in a last-minute plea deal, in which he admitted guilt to amended felony charges of criminal endangerment and criminal mischief. In exchange, he received two 10-year suspended sentences in Montana, to be served concurrently. After that Ambrozuk pleaded guilty in a Texas court to federal passport fraud.
He also was ordered by Stadler to pay restitution for the rental plane he flew out of Canada and into Little Bitterroot Lake, and to the Babcock family for Dianne’s burial expenses.
A video preview of the “Dateline” show can be viewed at https://nbcnews.to/2QDYPFb
News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.