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"If there were, the FAA would take action."
Jeffrey Michael Sherman, now 43, shows up an hour late for an interview at the International House of Pancakes. He apologizes for being late; he's had a bad night; his medicines haven't kicked in yet, so please excuse.
Sherman was released from the Maricopa County Jail in February and maintains he was set up. He is an innocent man, he says. He signed the plea agreement only to put the matter to rest.
Sherman is a sad, short man with uneven, ground-down teeth, bloodshot blue eyes, thinning, fuzzy hair, dirty fingernails. He wears a gold chain around his neck and a gold ring embossed with a hot air balloon design on one finger. His long-sleeved shirt does not hide the weakness or asymmetry of his right arm. His toes point inward and he seems to walk stiffly. Sitting is even more difficult; two bone tumors have grown at the base of his spine, he says. Another tumor grows on his wrist.
He claims to have undergone 21 bone surgeries, and began taking "prescription methadone" in the early Nineties to help the pain pills work. But he says he's never abused drugs and has never piloted a balloon while under the influence.
He says he's heard that cocaine bolsters the effects of prescription pain medications, but he'd never touch it. He figures cocaine was found in his urine after the balloon "incident" because a former employee jerry-rigged his asthma inhaler, and he inadvertently inhaled it after he fell.
The physical pain is nothing compared to the mental pain, he says. Since 1995 he's suffered deep intermittent depressions, has been suicidal, has undergone electroshock therapy.
He describes himself as a twice-divorced fellow who was always "a little bit solitary," because "when you have health problems . . . people think you are contagious."
"Ballooning is probably the best painkiller I've got," he says, which explains why he took to ballooning in 1977 despite his physical disabilities.
But he can't pilot his beloved balloons anymore. The FAA revoked his license after the 1996 crash.
Sherman says it was all part of a plot against him, hatched by the FAA, the police, the insurance company that dumped him and his rivals in the ballooning community who always treated him like a "pariah" and lied about him because they were jealous that he was the best pilot in Arizona.
The people who sued him were misguided--he never got in any balloon crashes.
And now the press is after him.
"I think you're on a witch hunt," he tells New Times.
Despite his suspicions, Sherman wants to talk.
He says the passengers gave an erroneous account of the September 27, 1996, ballooning "incident."
He says the balloon hit a "downdraft" and that the landing was "windy."
After the balloon "lightly" bounced down the second time, he says he announced: "Folks, we're going to keep on flying," and the passengers clapped their hands and said, "Yea, Great!" He says that as he tried to "power out," he attempted to aid a female passenger who was not properly bracing herself. Then he fell out of the balloon and got a concussion. That's all he remembers. The vial of cocaine police found did not belong to him, he claims.
After the "incident," he says he sequestered himself in his Ahwatukee-area home. He did not open his mail, which explains why his legal situation is such a mess.
His attitude toward the passengers vacillates. At one point, he says the passengers "can't touch" him because as a subcontractor he was covered by Randy Long's insurance.
At another point, he expresses remorse: "I am very unhappy for the passengers. . . . I wasn't negligent or anything else, but I feel badly for them."
Forgive Jim and Mary Harvey if they can't summon much sympathy for Jeff Sherman.
"I don't feel remorse for the fact that his life was shattered by the things he did," says Jim Harvey.
He continues to be astonished that the FAA sees no need to strengthen regulation of commercial balloon pilots. He wonders how a tourist at the Phoenician or any other hotel can possibly check out an FAA certified balloonist before hopping into the gondola.
"Thirteen people were just killed in a train wreck," he says, noting that the train wreck immediately generated cries for more safety regulations.
"Well, it could have been 13 people killed in a balloon, but because we were able to respond to the situation and survive, it is a non-event. Nothing will happen until people are killed, and only then will someone do something."
Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at firstname.lastname@example.org