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Wandering pilot given prison term

Thomas Root, the Washington lawyer who survived a plane crash in the Bahamas with an unexplained bullet wound in his stomach, was sentenced today to 15 years in prison for securities fraud. Under a plea bargain, Root agreed to a 15-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine, which will not be imposed until January. He agreed to testify against others indicted in an alleged securities scam.

The state dismissed 91 other charges against Root.

Superior Court Judge Frank Brown said Root's state sentence will run concurrently with any prison sentence handed down by federal authorities. Root faces sentencing on five federal securities fraud convictions in Washington.

Root, who faced up to 1,812 years in prison if convicted of all 455 charges, called the agreement an "offer so attractive to me that I could not refuse it.

"I continue to suspect that my name was included in the indictment not because of my culpability but rather because my notoriety from my ill-fated airplane flight in July 1989 ensured the prosecution of getting plenty of press attention for the indictments," he said.

Root, 37, passed out in the cockpit of his single-engine plane during a flight from Washington to Rocky Mount, N.C. The plane, which was shadowed by military planes, eventually crashed in the ocean off the coast of Florida.

Root was pulled from the ocean after the crash and rescuers discovered he had been shot in the abdomen. Root has insisted that a pistol he kept in the plane discharged during the crash, but experts have questioned his explanation of the wound.

A Nash County grand jury in June returned 24 indictments containing 2,695 counts against Root and other officials of Sonrise Management Services and Telemedia.

Sonrise helped form partnerships to federal licenses for low-power FM radio stations. Secretary of State Rufus Edmisten said only a handful of Sonrise's 1,600 investors ever received a license.

"In all, 1,018 people in North Carolina contributed more than $8-million to this organization," Edmisten said. "Nationally, more than $16-million was invested by people from 25 states."