Longform

The Life We're Handed

Page 5 of 7

After her divorce Jean Pittock retained custody of her kids for eight months. After that, in December 1995, she agreed to give custody of the children to Robbin. She had a curious explanation for why she agreed to this: She says in court documents that she feared he would commit suicide otherwise.

From late January 1996 to early December 1997, police responded to calls from the five-bedroom house in Coral Springs no fewer than 18 times. None of the calls was related to a suicide attempt. A police log flags them with terms like criminal mischief, neighbors' complaints, juvenile disturbances, suspicious incidents. Most had to do with Mandy.

"I was basically running wild," she says today. "Why was it happening? My dad and me were having our own separate problems, and we weren't communicating. In the beginning when I started drinking, I was upset by the divorce. Eventually I went to AA for it, and now I don't drink. Ever since then everything's been great."

By last summer Pittock says he had halted a pattern of binge-drinking. He still stayed in touch with his drinking buddies, though. One of them, Pat Thompson, called him up looking for work. Pittock recommended him for a job at a local cargo hauler named Fine Air.

On August 7 the 42-year-old Thompson sat in the cockpit of a DC-8 cargo jet, rolling from Fine Air's hangar on the north side of Miami International to runway 27-right. He told the 26-year-old first officer, Steven Petrosky, to fly the first leg of a trip south. The plane was loaded with squares of denim bound for a blue jeans factory in the Dominican Republic.

At 150 miles per hour, Petrosky pulled back on the control column, and the plane lifted in the air. The nose immediately pitched up to a higher-than-normal angle, according to the flight data recorder.

"Oh, shit!" exclaimed Thompson, his words captured on the plane's cockpit recorder.

The 141-ton jet clawed its way above 500 feet, then fell back to Earth. The plane crashed tail first, then the right wing plowed into a field. It skidded across a road into the International Airport Center, a collection of computer stores and shops. Everyone onboard was killed.

"[The loaders] had misloaded the airplane as it turns out," Pittock says. "On takeoff the center of gravity -- the balance point of the airplane -- was way too far aft."

Pittock, who had been best man at Thompson's wedding, was absent from the funeral.

Pittock, who flew for Arrow Air, made his last flight that night. "I tried to get out of it. I tried to call in and tell 'em I was, you know, upset -- a lot -- but they couldn't find anyone to replace me.

"Most people can take four balls and juggle 'em. Maybe six. You get a dozen balls going in the air, and pretty soon you're gonna start dropping some."

After a discussion with his boss at Arrow Air and a consultation with his doctor, Pittock decided to take time off from flying.

Thinking of his dead friend's wife, Pittock called the attorney who negotiated on his behalf with Costco in the early '90s. In conversation the attorney happened to mention that Pittock's ex-wife was petitioning the probate court for more of Alex's trust fund money.

Through the remaining months of 1997 and into 1998, Pittock fought his ex-wife in two related issues on two separate fronts. In Miami-Dade probate court, Jean asked for and received an increase of $500 per month in Alexander's special-needs allowance, partly for the purpose of sending him to a psychologist named Anita Fischler.

Meanwhile she hired the psychologist's husband's law firm to petition the Broward Court so she could get custody of Alexander, Mandy, and Jaclyn. She also asked for and received trust fund monies to send Alexander to Nova School, a private institution affiliated with Nova Southeastern University. As it turned out, both Anita Fischler and her husband-attorney serve on the headmaster's advisory committee.

The cozy relationship between his wife's family lawyer and his child's psychologist looked increasingly ominous to Robbin Pittock.

"I couldn't believe my ears," he says. "I thought: They're using Alexander as a total dupe -- on the pretense that they're gonna help him emotionally. Meanwhile they're using him to find out all the details of our home life so the attorney can use it in a custody fight."

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Sean Rowe