Wyoming lawsuit over Earhart search before court

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Amelia Earhart and Missing Plane
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Wyoming lawsuit over Earhart search before court
(Image courtesy of: Miami Herald)
This patch, found on a remote Pacific Island by researchers with The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, is believed to have come from Earhart's plane Electra. (TIGHAR)
The patch is shown on the plane under this yellow arrow. (TIGHAR)
The shredded patch being held up against a reproduction of where on the plane it would have fit. (TIGHAR)
The patch covered the special window denoted at the back of the plane. (TIGHAR)
Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, is seen in this undated photo. (AP Photo)
FILE - An undated file photo shows American aviatrix Amelia Earhart. A $2.2 million expedition is hoping to finally solve one of America's most enduring mysteries. What happened to famed aviator Amelia Earhart when she went missing over the South Pacific 75 years ago? (AP Photo, File)
Amelia Earhart with her Lockheed Vega surrounded by crowd after she became the first woman to fly solo from Hawaii to California in 1935. Courtesy Air and Space Museum. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this undated photo, Amelia Earhart, the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by plane sits on top of a plane. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is wading into one of the 20th century?s most enduring mysteries: the fate of American aviator Amelia Earhart, disappeared over the South Pacific 75 years ago. Clinton is meeting March 20, 2012, with historians and scientists from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, which will launch a new search in June for the wreckage of Earhart?s plane off the remote island of Nikumaroro. (AP Photo)
FILE-- An undated file photo shows Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is meeting Tuesday March 20, 2012, with historians and scientists from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, which will launch a new search in June for the wreckage of Earhart's plane off the remote island of Nikumaroro. (AP Photo)
FILE-- In a 1937 file photo aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, pose in front of their twin-engine Lockheed Electra in Los Angeles prior to their historic flight in which Earhart was attempting to become first female pilot to circle the globe. A $2.2 million expedition is hoping to finally solve one of America's most enduring mysteries. What happened to famed aviator Amelia Earhart when she went missing over the South Pacific 75 years ago? (AP Photo, File)
Amelia Earhart, noted flier, awaiting a call to the stand as an expert witness in an airplane accident case in which Paul Mantz, her technical adviser (shown with her), is involved in Los Angeles on May 16, 1937. (AP Photo)
Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan pose with map of the Pacific showing the route of their last flight, in Los Angeles, May 1937. (AP Photo)
Vietnamese Air Force Col. Pham Minh Tuan uses binoculars on board a flying aircraft during a mission to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Gulf of Thailand, Thursday, March 13, 2014. With no distress call, no sign of wreckage and very few answers, the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane is turning into one of the biggest aviation mysteries since Amelia Earhart vanished over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. (AP Photo)
A cabin crew of the Vietnam Air Force is seen onboard a flying AN-26 Soviet made aircraft during a search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 plane over the southern sea between Vietnam and Malaysia Friday, March 14, 2014. Vietnam says it has downgraded but not stopped its search for the missing jetliner in the South China Sea and has been asked by Malaysian authorities to consider sending planes and ships to the Strait of Malacca. (AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen)
Officer Lang Van Ngan of the Vietnam Air Force looks out the window onboard a flying AN-26 Soviet made aircraft during a search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 plane over the southern sea between Vietnam and Malaysia Friday, March 14, 2014. Vietnam says it has downgraded but not stopped its search for the missing jetliner in the South China Sea and has been asked by Malaysian authorities to consider sending planes and ships to the Strait of Malacca. (AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen)
Officer Lang Van Ngan of the Vietnam Air Force looks out the window onboard a flying AN-26 Soviet made aircraft during a search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 plane over the southern sea between Vietnam and Malaysia Friday, March 14, 2014. Vietnam says it has downgraded but not stopped its search for the missing jetliner in the South China Sea and has been asked by Malaysian authorities to consider sending planes and ships to the Strait of Malacca. (AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen).
Vietnamese Air Force Col. Pham Minh Tuan uses binoculars on board a flying aircraft during a mission to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Gulf of Thailand over the location where Chinese satellite images showed possible debris from the missing Malaysian jetliner, Thursday, March 13, 2014. (AP Photo)
A Vietnamese air force pilot touches the controls of a transport plane on Sunday March 9, 2014 during the search and rescue operations for the Malaysian airliner vanished early Saturday on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Military radar indicates that the missing Boeing 777 jet may have turned back, Malaysia's air force chief said Sunday as scores of ships and aircraft from across Asia resumed a hunt for the plane and its 239 passengers. (AP Photo)
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By BOB MOEN

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - The search for Amelia Earhart's missing airplane could land in front of a federal jury depending on how a judge rules in a lawsuit filed by a Wyoming man who says he was duped into donating $1 million an expedition.

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl heard arguments Thursday on dismissing a lawsuit that centers on whether Earhart's plane, which disappeared in July 1937 in the South Pacific, was found.

Tim Mellon maintains in his lawsuit that the Pennsylvania-based The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) and its executive director, Ric E. Gillespie, actually found Earhart's plane in 2010. Mellon, son of the late philanthropist Paul Mellon, says the group kept the discovery secret so he would keep giving it money.

However, the expedition group maintains it did nothing wrong because there was no conclusive evidence whether it had found Earhart's plane. The searchers have seen a few man-made materials on the ocean floor in the area where it thinks Earhart's plane crashed.

Skavdahl said he will issue a ruling later but did not specify a date.

In oral arguments Thursday, lawyer John Masterson, representing the defendants, told Skavdahl that one reason the lawsuit should be dismissed is that it would force a jury to decide whether the group actually found the plane even though no experts have made that determination.

"When no one has an expert that says it's conclusively Amelia Earhart's plane, how do you then turn to a jury of lay people and say tell us whether or not Amelia Earhart's airplane is under a 1,000 feet of water in the South Pacific after 77 years?" Masterson said after the hearing.

After the hearing, Gillespie said the group would be ridiculed if it had declared it found Earhart's plane based on an undersea video of a few objects.

Tim Stubson, a Casper lawyer representing Mellon, said whether Earhart's plane has been found is central to determining whether fraud has occurred.

"I think it's a pretty simple case of did they know the wreckage was there and did they misrepresent that fact, and that's really the simple question to be answered by a jury," Stubson said.

Stubson said there's a "measure of probability" whether the Earhart wreckage has been found.

"The evidence will show that the probability is very, very high," he said.

While Skavdahl didn't immediately rule whether the lawsuit should continue, he did deny a motion by Masterson to dismiss Gillespie from the lawsuit.

Earhart was trying to become the first woman aviator to circle the globe when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery has staged repeated expeditions to search the waters around the Kiribati atoll of Nikumaroro, about 1,800 miles south of Hawaii.

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