The Latest: Texas balloon pilot had 4 drunken-driving cases


LOCKHART, Texas (AP) — The Latest on the hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people in Texas (all times local):

2:10 p.m.

The hot air balloon pilot involved in Saturday’s fatal crash in Texas had at least four drunken-driving convictions in Missouri.

Online court records show that Alfred G. Nichols IV pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in St. Louis County in 1990, then twice in 2002 and another in 2010.

Nichols also was convicted of a drug crime in 2000 and spent about a year-and-a-half in prison before he was paroled. He was returned to prison in April 2010 for parole revocation because of his drunk-driving conviction that year. He was paroled in January 2012.

Missouri court records also show that Nichols settled a personal injury lawsuit in 2013, that was filed by one of eight passengers in his balloon that crash-landed in suburban St. Louis. The lawsuit blamed lack of propane for the balloon. Nichols blamed lack of wind.

Authorities haven’t identified the pilot in the Texas crash, but his roommate has confirmed the pilot was 49-year-old Alfred “Skip” Nichols.

Nichols’ ex-girlfriend, Wendy Bartch, told The Associated Press that Nichols had several drunken-driving convictions in Missouri, but that he was in recovery and had been sober for at least four years.

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12:45 p.m.

Federal records show the company operating the balloon tour involved in Saturday’s fatal crash in Texas had another accident two years ago.

A Federal Aviation Administration accident report shows that a balloon registered to Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides made a hard landing in a church soccer field on Aug. 3, 2014. The crash injured two female passengers.

The report says the company’s retrieval team had parked its trailer in the balloon’s landing path, causing the pilot to land short to avoid a collision. The injured passengers were taken by ambulance to a hospital.

The name of the pilot involved in the 2014 crash wasn’t included in the records. FAA spokesman Lynn Lundsford said there are no other records of accidents or closed enforcement actions against Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, or the company’s pilot and owner, Alfred G. Nichols.

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12:30 p.m.

The ex-girlfriend of a hot air balloon pilot involved in a deadly Texas crash says he was in recovery for alcoholism and had been sober at least four years.

Wendy Bartch told The Associated Press on Monday that she met Skip Nichols in St. Louis in 1989. She says Nichols had multiple driving while intoxicated convictions, but never piloted while drinking. She says, “having other people’s lives at stake was Skip’s primary concern.”

Bartch said Nichols’ alcoholism and criminal record caused tensions with his father, a decorated military veteran. But she says there “had been a mending” in their relationship in recent years.

Bartch said she and Nichols remained friends and she helped him set up business operations in Texas in 2014. She says in order to keep his St. Louis business going, he started offering flights in Texas in the winter.

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12:20 p.m.

The person who called 911 following a hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people thought it was a vehicle fire in a remote patch of Texas countryside.

The Caldwell County Sheriff’s office said Monday that there was only one call placed to 911 following the crash. Federal investigators say the call came a minute after powerlines were tripped at 7:42 a.m. Saturday. Investigators believe the balloon hit the powerline wires, killing everyone onboard.

In a recording of the 911 call, nearby resident Margaret Wylie reports seeing what she thinks is a vehicle fire in a pasture near Lockhart, a city south of Austin. She provides directions to the area to help responding firefighters.

She then adds: “The whole thing is in flames now.”

Wylie told The Associated Press on Saturday that, “it was like a fireball going up.”

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12 a.m.

Police say the pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas and killed all 16 people aboard was arrested in Missouri for driving while intoxicated in 2000.

Authorities haven’t identified the pilot, but his roommate and friend confirms the pilot was 49-year-old Alfred “Skip” Nichols. The friend, Alan Lirette, says Nichols was a good pilot. Federal investigators say the balloon hit power lines before crashing into a pasture on Saturday.

A Missouri police officer tells The Associated Press that Nichols was arrested there in 2000 on a felony driving-while-intoxicated charge. The case was resolved two years later when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. The officer spoke to the AP on condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that in 2008, the Better Business Bureau warned consumers about doing business with Nichols after complaints about his balloon-touring company.

— From Associated Press writer Emily Schmall in Fort Worth, Texas.

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