Rivera Jet Owner Under Scrutiny

The Learjet 25 jet that crashed in Mexico, killing Latin music superstar Jenni Rivera and six others Dec. 9, had a sketchy history and was owned by a company led by an exec who spent two years in a U.S. federal prison for falsifying aircraft and safety records.

The jet lost contact with traffic controllers 10 minutes after its 3:30 a.m. departure from Monterrey, Mexico, where Rivera had just performed. It reportedly nose-dived from 28,000 feet in 30 seconds, at an estimated 600 mph, into a northern Mexico mountainside.

As the bodies of Rivera and the other passengers were being identified, an investigation revealed the Learjet was owned by Las Vegas-based Starwood Management, the “alter ego” of company exec Christian Esquino Nunez, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Esquino, also known as Eduardo “Ed” Nunez, was accused and eventually pleaded guilty in 2005 to charges of conspiring to falsify histories and safety records of planes he bought and sold in the 1990s and 2000s.

Among the falsifications were tail numbers, inspection stamps and logbooks, according to the Times. Esquino’s “fraudulent business practices … put the flying public at risk,” federal authorities said in documents quoted by the paper.

The plane carrying Rivera, her attorney, crew, publicist and stylist was built in 1969 and being flown at the time of the crash by a 78-year-old pilot. The same plane reportedly sustained “substantial” damage in 2005 when a pilot lost control on a Texas runway because of a 300-pound fuel imbalance in one wing, according to the Times.

Rivera was in the process of buying the jet for $250,000 from Starwood, Esquino told the paper by phone from Mexico City, and the flight was not a charter as earlier reported but a “free demo.”

Starwood Management was formed two months after Esquino’s release from a federal prison in Lompoc, Calif., and deportation to Mexico.  His sister-in-law, Norma Gonzalez, is listed as the company’s sole corporate officer, according to Nevada employment records cited by the Times.

But documents in recent lawsuits against the company indicate that Esquino is believed to be “running the show” from Mexico, and allegedly launched Starwood to dodge rules restricting foreign ownership of U.S.-registered aircraft. 

Esquino’s checkered legal past goes well beyond his imprisonment and deportation, but generally involves aviation. He was accused in 2000 of helping drive a Chino, Calif., airport into bankruptcy. Last year, he reportedly testified to Mexican authoities that Starwood had been hired to spirit relatives of late dictator Moammar Kadafi out of Libya.

He pleaded guilty in 1993 to federal charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. And an attorney for Esquino told the Times that he was later the target of a DEA investigation into drug trafficking but was not charged in that case.

Esquino, in a phone interview with the Times, said he isn’t surprised that his past is being scrutinized because of Rivera’s death. He said the ill-fated jet was “perfectly maintained” and there was “no mistake” in allowing a 78-year-old pilot – who Esquino speculates may have had a heart attack – to fly it.