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Look Before You Leap

Jumping out of airplanes is a dangerous sport, but at the drop zone built by skydiving legend Roger Nelson--where he himself perished last summer--the death rate is nearly twice the national average.

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Everyone at "the compound," the headquarters of Skydive Chicago, agrees with Todd Fey that Saturday, June 7, 2003, was a nice day for hurling yourself out of an airplane. "Winds were very light," recalls the 42-year-old marine parachutist and skydiving instructor, who has more than 2,200 jumps under his belt. To this day Fey isn't sure how or why, in the course of a routine jump under ideal conditions, he got caught up in the chain of events that led to the death of Skydive Chicago's founder and leader, Roger Nelson.

A veteran of over 9,000 jumps, the 48-year-old Nelson was a skydiving legend. In the 1970s he pioneered and promoted radical new styles of jumping. Throughout the 80s and 90s, he orchestrated group free falls involving record-setting numbers of jumpers in a single formation. In '87 he was convicted on charges of masterminding an international smuggling ring responsible for importing millions of dollars' worth of illegal drugs into the Chicago area. While serving time in a federal prison, Nelson became a devout evangelical Christian. Released in '93, he founded Skydive Chicago, 80 miles southwest of the city in Ottawa, Illinois, and began building it into one of the world's most popular skydiving facilities.

Around 2:30 that afternoon, Fey, Nelson, and about 20 other jumpers boarded one of Skydive Chicago's two Twin Otter airplanes. Some were experienced, others were about to make their first leaps with instructors strapped to their backs--an arrangement called tandem training. Nelson was working with a student but not in tandem. Fey and a partner were making their fifth jump of the day.

Fifteen minutes into its ascent, the plane leveled off at an altitude of 13,000 feet, two and a half miles from the airstrip. Separated by a count of five seconds, the jumpers began throwing themselves through the door of the plane, a square of blinding white light. Fey recalls a small group of "flat" (belly first) skydivers exiting the Otter first. Next went the free flyers--aerial gymnasts who engage in group routines during their 60 seconds of free fall. Fey and his partner were among the latter. They were 20 seconds into their jump when Nelson and his student left the aircraft.

At about 3,000 feet, Fey and his partner completed their routine, separated, and pulled their rip cords. "You don't want to open your parachute close to anybody," says Fey. Like Nelson, they were using Velocity parachutes--small, high-performance canopies designed to handle steep turns at high speeds. Both chutes deployed perfectly.

Scanning the sky at 2,500 feet, Fey saw parachutes opening overhead and, just 50 feet below his own dangling feet, his partner's canopy. "We were on similar parachutes so I thought I would follow him in," he says. "I was going to let him land first and then just follow him in." A few hundred feet above the ground, Fey watched his partner go into his final approach and prepared to do the same. "I thought I was gonna be the second one to land," he says. But as he came out of his final turn at 50 feet, he found himself bagged in something other than sky. "There was no warning for me," he says. "I saw Roger's canopy at the exact same time that I collided with it. The canopy appeared to come from my left; it kind of overtook me. I remember thinking, this is a very dangerous thing happening here, to have a collision so close to the ground. I was really trying to just save my life, trying to make my parachute fly."

Blinded by nylon and with his own canopy largely deflated, Fey somehow managed to regain tension in his steering handles. Fey reckons he hit the ground at 50 miles an hour, and that the interval between the aerial collision and the final impact was three seconds at most. "I just lay there trying not to move, because I really thought my back was broke. At that point I thought I was the only one hurt--I was facing away from Roger. At some point while people were attending to me and medical technicians started to show up, I recognized that there was someone else. I didn't know how bad."

SDC instructor Donna Wright, who was flying tandem with a student, remembers the scene as it looked from several hundred feet. "I didn't know who it was, but I knew someone was injured," she says. "I saw the crowd of people on the ground, and I just tried to reassure my tandem student that I'm sure he's OK, whoever it is on the ground. I was telling her not to look down and to try not to pay attention to what's going on there, because we were finishing our skydive."

Having just completed a jump from SDC's other Twin Otter, Nelson's 23-year-old son Rook was on the ground and close enough to the impact to witness it. "I had just walked into the hangar and I turned around because I heard some people screaming," he says. "And I saw him crash. I knew who it was because I saw his white jumpsuit." Rook raced to his father's side. "He was alive there, but he was pretty messed up. He had broken almost everything in his body."

The injured men were taken to Ottawa Hospital. Fey had a fractured foot and ankle and torn ligaments in both knees. Nelson was evacuated to Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, where he died of multiple internal injuries. He was Skydive Chicago's 14th fatality in ten years.

Ottawa, population 17,000, was the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, and is home to a memorial to W.D. Boyce, founder of the Boy Scouts of America, as well as a strip club called the Silver Slipper Saloon. But the biggest draw to the area is SDC's 230-acre drop zone, whose facilities include a full-service campground, a pond stocked with fish and surrounded by a man-made strip of white sand, a riding stable, and a fishing pier overlooking the Fox River. The compound is dotted with movable shelters of various kinds--RVs, trailers, mobile homes, dilapidated yellow school buses, converted semis--belonging to staff and regular jumpers. There's a big brick house Roger built for his parents, Carl and Pat, who live there still. The largest building on the site is the huge and immaculate hangar where SDC's Cessna 182 Skylane and the Twin Otters are kept when not in service. Next in size is the conference center, which houses a 300-seat auditorium, classrooms, conference suites, a restaurant called the Ali Bear Cafe, and overnight suites next to a huge office with a two-foot plasma TV and windows offering a panoramic view of the grounds. Since Roger Nelson's death the offices have been occupied by Rook and his sister Missy, 26.

"I had a rough relationship with my dad," Missy continues. "He was hard on me. He tried to teach me how to speak in public, and do all these little PR events, but it always ended up him taking over the show and I'd be like under his wing." She pauses, looks up to the ceiling, and says with a small laugh, "Sorry if this is making you mad."

Missy says that about six weeks before he died, Roger Nelson began preparing her and Rook to take the reins. "He was like, 'If I die, what are you kids going to do? You don't do anything.' I would go home and think about what would happen if he would die. He really wanted us to get involved." Her father's way of bringing her into the fold was characteristically contrarian. "My dad used a lot of reverse psychology on me," says Missy. "He told my brother and me, 'This place will not run without me.'"

A petite blond, Missy is president of SDC. Lanky, spike-haired Rook succeeded his father as SDC's program director. Both are multiple medalists and world-record holders. Missy made her first tandem jump with her father at age five, Rook at four. "My dad was that type of person," says Missy. "He took me hang gliding when I was three. I asked my mom, 'Why did you let me go?' and she was like, 'Yeah, like I could have told your father no. Ha!'" (Missy's mother, Jeannie, was divorced from Roger and lives in the southwest.)

Missy and Rook are third-generation skydivers: their paternal grandfather learned to jump while serving as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division in World War II and continued for the love of it after he was demobilized. In 1970 Roger's older brother, Carl Jr., started jumping at a drop zone in Hinckley, Illinois, down the road from Ottawa. The facility permitted 16-year-olds to jump, but only with parental consent, so 15-year-old Roger forged his father's signature on the form to make his first skydive.

The brothers soon became regulars at Hinckley. At a time when skydiving was associated with a sober military aesthetic, the Nelson boys--who had long hair, wore scruffy clothes, and engaged in such antics as jumping barefoot or even naked--were called "the freak brothers" by the older jumpers. Carl and Roger embraced the name, assuming the ranks of Freak Brother numbers One and Two, respectively. Outsiders could gain admittance to the brotherhood by participating in a jump with two members in good standing. More than 4,000 jumpers have since joined the club, which is still going strong. In '73 the brothers began publishing a zine called the Freak Brother Flyer, dedicated to technical aspects of "relative work," maneuvers in which two or more jumpers come together in the air to create formations. In '77 the Nelsons organized the first Freak Brothers Convention, a weekend of partying, music, and competitive jumping. The convention grew into an annual institution, the biggest party on the skydiving calendar. (The tradition ended when Roger Nelson was arrested in '86, but a similar festival, the World Freefall Convention, soon emerged to take its place.)

In '78 Roger began pushing past the conventional belly-first jumping position and exploring the possibilities of falling belly-up or headfirst. The radical new style, which he called freak flying, anticipated the now popular style known as free flying--a wide-open approach that can involve rotating in the air on any bodily axis conceivable.

The good times were interrupted in '79 when Carl Nelson Jr. died in a jumping accident at a Pennsylvania drop zone. Roger, who was doing relative work with him, noticed that a control line had worked its way out of Carl's parachute pack and gestured to him that he had a problem. When Carl pulled his rip cord, his chute became ensnarled in the loose control line. His reserve chute became similarly entangled, resulting in what skydivers call a "streamer"--a flapping, unflyable canopy.

The trauma of watching his brother die notwithstanding, Roger went on to establish his own drop zone in Sandwich, Illinois, in '82 and continued to organize the annual Freak Brothers conventions. Then in '86 federal prosecutors charged that he'd been the ringleader of a smuggling network since '76, and that he and 16 coconspirators were responsible for transporting millions of dollars' worth of marijuana and cocaine from Belize, Jamaica, and Colombia into the Chicago area.

Such activities were not exactly unheard of among skydivers of Nelson's generation, according to Mike Truffer, publisher of Skydiving magazine. "I'm 53, so Roger and I were part of the same age cohort," says Truffer. "I don't think drug use was more widespread among skydivers than the rest of society, but it was common. With the smuggling, we're talking about opportunity. Skydivers are risk takers, and they have access to suitable aircraft. Back then it was easy to fly one to Mexico or South America, fill it with drugs, then fly it back, and no one would know."

Nelson initially disputed the charges, claiming that he had become involved in the drug trade at the behest of the DEA, which had recruited him as an undercover operative in '85 to penetrate and report on existing smuggling rings. But faced with a possible life sentence, Nelson opted to avoid a trial. In exchange for pleading guilty to charges of tax evasion and operating a continuing criminal enterprise, he received a ten-year sentence, of which he ultimately served less than half.

While doing time at the federal prison in Rochester, Minnesota, Nelson befriended disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, who was his cell mate between '91 and '92. "Roger was very, very influential in my life in prison," says Bakker, who was released in '94. "He just became one of my best friends. Roger was an adventurer. He wore an old leather bomber jacket that he had in prison somehow. He just had the look of a skydiver and an adventurer, somebody who would pilot DC-3s and fly them all over the world."

Asked whether he played a direct part in bringing Nelson to Christ, Bakker says, "I hope so. When I met him, he wasn't very spiritually minded. In prison I wasn't allowed to preach or anything, but I could talk to people, and so he got interested." But after his marriage to Tammy Faye Bakker fell apart, the evangelist adds, it was Nelson who ministered to him. "When I hit the worst time in the prison we were in the cell together. My wife divorced me and married someone else, who was my friend I thought. It was like I had lost everything. But for the next 60 days, Roger became like a pastor and just prayed with me, gave me wisdom beyond what I have ever known. It was almost supernatural: God knew I needed somebody to help me through that very difficult moment, and Roger was there."

Nelson was released in '93. Skydive Sandwich having folded in his absence, he set about building a bigger, better drop zone, Skydive Chicago. According to Glenn Bangs, president of the United States Parachuting Association, Nelson's return to skydiving created a stir of controversy in the community. "One camp was like, 'He served his debt to society,' and the other was, 'Oh no, we have a convicted felon.'"

The terms of his plea bargain had required Nelson to forfeit $2 million in assets, much of it in the form of gold and silver bars and coins. But as Skydive Chicago began to grow into the busiest drop zone in the midwest, rumors circulated that Nelson had managed to hang on to some of his ill-gotten gains, and was using them to capitalize SDC. "My dad was financially very savvy, and he also believed in plowing every penny back into the business, keeping the equipment current, making sure that students had the latest, safest gear to use, not army-surplus junk," says Missy. "That always set some tongues wagging. Even now, whenever we make an improvement, there are people who are going to start talking about Roger Nelson's bottomless pile of gold. Well, I'm sad to say there just isn't any buried treasure."

The average drop zone is a utilitarian space with a minimum of amenities not directly related to skydiving. Nelson took Skydive Chicago in a novel direction, turning it into a multipurpose recreational facility, complete with pool tables, video games, satellite TV, horseback riding trails, and a theater that doubles as a disco.

Another of Nelson's innovations at the drop zone was evangelism. He spoke openly about his Christian faith to staff and students, and posted his spiritual reflections weekly on the SDC Web site. He instituted a no-swearing policy, which is still enforced: if you curse at the compound, you're likely to get a peace sign in the face along with a firm reminder to "spread the love."

It was Nelson's ambition to institute regular Sunday services at the drop zone. He and Missy were looking around the Ottawa area for a minister who would fit in at the compound when they discovered that one of their frequent jumpers, Laurian Lazarescu, was a Romanian Baptist pastor. "We began talking, and in the winter of 2001 he said, 'Let's do a big Christian revival event,'" says Lazarescu, who left his ministry at Chicago's First Romanian Baptist Church last year to become the full-time pastor of SDC's Seraphim Fellowship of Jesus Christ. He claims he's converted 25 jumpers at SDC in the past year.

Not everyone in the skydiving community was impressed by Nelson's spiritual makeover. One of Nelson and SDC's fiercest critics is Terry Murray, a telecommunications construction worker who worked as a jump instructor and marketing executive at SDC for six years but quit in '98 because, he says, he was fed up with "Roger Koresh's cult" and the way Nelson was running the drop zone. Murray likes to tell the story about graffiti he spotted on a Skydive Chicago billboard while driving west on I-80 last year. Somebody had spray painted over the company's toll-free number and tagged a different number above it. "Driving by, I called the number," says Murray. "The person answered the phone, 'LaSalle County coroner's office.' I just started laughing."

In Murray's opinion, the fatalities at SDC stem from something worse than a run of bad luck. He contends Nelson pushed for the maximum number of jumps at the expense of safety, taking students on tandems in bad weather and through low layers of clouds. On one occasion, he says, he, Nelson, and their students ended up 18 miles away from the drop zone. "There was no visibility, everything was buried in clouds." he says. "But the second he started seeing ground, Roger had everyone out of the plane. When we finally got back to the airport, Roger told me the main thing is the students jumped and we made money." Murray also says that there was still a culture of recreational drug use at SDC when he quit. "But as much as anything, the danger came from the atmosphere Roger created around himself," says Murray. "He was aggressive and sort of a maverick, and he made people around him want to be that way too."

There have been no fatalities on Missy and Rook's watch. But they maintain that the death toll at SDC simply reflects that it's one of the busiest drop zones in the country. "Skydiving is a dangerous sport," says Missy. "People die; nobody knows that better than this family. But keep in mind we do 75,000 jumps every year, which is way more than anyone else. I'm not downplaying the seriousness of it, but the risk of dying is something that we all accept in this sport. And it's not a death wish--it's the way we wish to live."

Some of SDC's critics and competitors reject 75,000 as an exaggeration, but if it's accurate the death rate at the Ottawa drop zone is still nearly double the national average. (According to the United States Parachute Association, there are about 30 skydiving fatalities every year out of 3.3 million jumps. A proportionate death toll at a facility conducting 75,000 drops a year would be about one death every 17 months, or seven deaths over a decade.)

Although toxicology tests on Roger Nelson's body found no trace of drugs, at least two other fatal accidents at SDC were drug related. In July 2002, a 33-year-old jump instructor named Ronald Passmore was killed while attempting a risky landing maneuver called a pond swoop, where the skydiver ends his jump by skimming his feet across a water surface. Passmore's aorta was severed when he belly flopped into the drop zone's tiny pond. An autopsy revealed intoxicating levels of cannabis in his system. The preceding year another dead jumper (not an instructor) tested positive for cocaine, cannabis, and ecstasy.

Missy Nelson flatly denies that student safety has ever been compromised in pursuit of profit at SDC. "My father was always looking for ways to make the student experience as safe and enjoyable as possible, and that's the way we'll always run things as well." She also points to a new drug testing policy that she and her brother introduced last year. All instructors, she says, must test clean at the beginning of the season or they will not be allowed to work. (There are no follow-up tests.) "Society makes us push to do that," she adds. "It's almost like a forced thing to do. Because my dad never really wanted to regulate. Skydivers are free-spirited people. We like to do what we like to do, just sharing, spreading love."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/The Daily Times, Yvette Marie Dostatni, Chris Curry--The Journal Star.

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