Jenni Rivera was "in the final stages" of buying the Lear Jet on which she and six others were killed Sunday when the plane crashed in Mexico, according to Christian E. Esquino Nuñez, who, the Los Angeles Times blog reported, identified himself as the operations manager of Starwood Management LLC of Las Vegas, which owned the plane. In a phone interview with a Times reporter, Esquino Nuñez said that the Lear Jet 25, built in 1969, had been perfectly maintained.
Esquino Nuñez has served jail time for forgery and drug trafficking charges related to the aviation company, other press outlets reported. Court records examined by Univision News showed that Esquino Nuñez, also known as Eduardo Nuñez, owes millions in state and federal taxes and has not paid money he owes to the group Los Tigres del Norte.
In 2005, according to those court records, Esquino Nuñez and his partner Lance Z. Ricotta were convicted by a federal grand jury on charges of "creating false and fictitious logbooks" for six planes. Esquino Nuñez had purchased the jets from the Mexican government and then sold them to buyers in the United States at higher prices.
CNN uncovered more about Esquino Nuñez's past, reporting that two civil lawsuits against Starwood accuse the firm of lying about its relationship to him. Insurance firms QBE and Commerce & Industry Insurance Company filed suits this year seeking to rescind its contracts with Starwood.
Also according to CNN, Esquino Nuñez, under the name Eduardo Nunez, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2002 of falsifying logbooks to obtain airworthiness certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 24 months in prison and later deported to Mexico.
Esquino Nuñez was previously indicted in Florida on drug trafficking charges, CNN revealed. The United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida accused Esquino Nuñez of providing planes to cocaine smugglers transporting 487 kilograms of cocaine from Colombia to South Florida. Esquino Nuñez pleaded guilty in 1993 to conspiring to conceal from the Internal Revenue Service "the existence, source and transfer of cash," court records show. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
In the interview with the LA Times, Nuñez addressed the Rivera plane crash directly. He speculated that the pilot, 78-year-old Manuel Perez Soto, suffered a heart attack on board, and that his co-pilot, 20-year-old Alejandro Torres, was too "green" to get the plane back on course.
Billboard learned that pilot of the Learjet was not licensed in the United States to carry passengers on a commercial flight, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Pérez Soto, a Mexican resident, held a U.S. license that was "not valid for the carriage of persons or property for compensation," according to the Federal Aviation Administration's records, accessed by Billboard on the FAA web site. His license was also restricted to visual flight rules (VFR) only - meaning that he was not authorized for the instrument-controlled flying that can be necessary when skies are not clear. U.S. regulations also allowed Pérez Soto to fly only when in possession of a valid Mexican license together with his FAA-issued license.
In a report published on its website Wednesday, the Mexican Communications and Transportation Secretariat (SCT) said that Pérez Soto and his co-pilot Torres were both currently licensed to fly in Mexico.
According to the SCT, Starwood Management said that Rivera was thinking of purchasing the jet for her private use and the company was therefore allowing her to use it on a promotional basis, without paying a fee, implying that any issue about Pérez Soto piloting a passenger plane would not apply in this case. The SCT also reported that according to Starwood, that plane's promotional use made void generally accepted international rules governing cabotage, which would prohibit a commerical U.S.-owned plane from transporting passengers between destinations in another country.
The Starwood plane was traveling from Monterrey, Mexico to Mexico City when it went down.
"We're all grieving," said Esquino told the LA Times. "I'm definitely very sorry that this happened."
Mexico's Civil Aeronautic branch of the SCT, together with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, were continuing the investigation into the flight Wednesday, examining documents and objects found at the crash scene.
The remains of bodies found have been taken to Monterrey University Hospital for forensic testing to identify.
The SCT estimates that the complete investigation into the fatal crash will take from nine months to a year.