Plane crash that killed 4 lawyers, pilot likely lost engine over lake, expert says
A twin-engine plane carrying four lawyers from the same South Florida law firm likely lost an engine while over Lake Okeechobee and was trying to divert course to the nearest airstrip when it crashed into the water and killed everyone onboard, flight records show.
The pilot, Eduardo Mulet, and the Delaware-based charter company he flew for also had questionable certifications, online records show and according to a flight expert.
The partners from the Peterson Bernard law firm were returning from Tampa on Friday where they’d flown that same morning aboard the same plane to meet with new clients. The return flight took off at 2:21 p.m. from Tampa International Airport bound for North Palm Beach County General Aviation airport. Estimated time of arrival was 3:35 p.m.
At about 3:18 p.m the flight began to unravel and by 3:22 it was on its way down, according to flightaware.com.
“The airplane was over Lake Okeechobee when it experienced engine probems,” Robert Katz, a commercial pilot and certified flight instructor who has been flying for 38 years. “The direction of the flight changes abruptly from southeast to south to west to southeast again and then east again and then it disappears.”
It crashed at 3:26 p.m. some 400 yards from shore a little north of Pahokee Airport, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Teri Barbera.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue divers found the five bodies, the pilot and his four passengers, when they searched the aircraft fuselage in the water, she said.
They were identified Saturday as commercial pilot Eduardo Mulet, 45, of West Palm Beach; Eric A. Peterson, 73, of Lighthouse Point; Matthew Fiorello, 36, of Palm Beach Gardens; Heather Bridwell, 43, of Jupiter; and Edwin Mortell III, 54, of Stuart
A partner for the the Peterson Bernard law firm that has offices in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Stuart, said “everybody’s in shock.”
“It’s certainly a blow to the firm. We will continue, but it will never be the same,” said Bill Martin, who heads the Fort Lauderdale office and has been with the firm since 1987.
“I’ve been partners with Eric, on a handshake, for more than 30 years,” he said. “
Peterson was married for more than 50 years. He is survived by his wife, a son and two grandchildren.
Mortell, known as Tom, excelled in construction-defect and wrongful death cases, Martin said. He leaves a widow and three sons, all recently graduated from college, Martin said.
“This is the only law job Ted has ever had since being my law clerk when he was [a student] at Nova [University],” Martin said.
As Friday afternoon wore on, an office manager called Martin concerned that she hadn’t heard from the partners flying back from Tampa. And she had seen news reports of a plane crashing into Lake Okeechobee, Martin said. But it seemed like too weird of a coincidence, it couldn’t be real.
Authorities first went to Fiorillo’s house and met with his wife Rachel to confirm that he had been aboard the flight, Martin said.
“So, we did learn that it was our plane around 6 or 7 p.m. Friday.”
Fiorillo leaves 2 young children. “He was a very talented young trial lawyer. With us, he had a stream of success.”
Bridwell was married and had two elementary school-aged children.
“Those two,” Martin said, speaking of Fiorillo and Bridwell, “went to trial all the time and knocked it out of the park. They were very, very, very good lawyers.”
Mulet held the proper pilot certification but his required medical certifcation, records show, would have expired Nov. 30, 2018.
“This appears to be an unqualified pilot to operate a charter flight,” Katz, the expert, said. “The problem is that his medical certification was expired. After which he has no privilege to offer his services as a commercial pilot to the flying public.”
He held the appropriate commercial pilot certification with the appropriate rating for that particular plane, said Katz who tracks plane crashes nationwide.
The plane went down as it approached the Pahokee airport, according to the FAA. Officials in Tampa said the flight was a charter that had departed from Sheltair Aviation Services’ executive hangar complex at the Tampa airport.
The National Transportation Safety Board will conduct the crash investigation and the sheriff’s violent crimes division will handle the death investigation.
According to the Peterson Bernard website:
■ Eric A. Peterson was a founding member of the law firm in 1981, with degrees from Ohio University and State University of New York at Buffalo. Several of his cases were featured on national television news programs including 20-20, Inside Edition and on Direct Television.
■ Matthew Fiorello was born and raised in South Florida, with degrees from Clemson University and Nova Southeastern University. Prior to joining the firm, Fiorello spent three years as an Assistant Public Defender in Broward County where he handled cases ranging from misdemeanor to first-degree felonies.
■ Heather Bridwell practiced law since 2000 and had degrees from Florida State University, in Communications, and Florida State University College of Law.
■ Edwin Mortell III was the manager of the law firm’s Stuart office and had degrees in Economics at Southern Methodist University, and law at Nova Southeastern University.
All four handled a wide range of award winning legal services to insurers, third party administrators, businesses, governments and individuals around the state of Florida from their offices in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Stuart.
Clockwise from top left, Eric A Peterson, Matthew Fiorello, Edwin Mortell III, and Heather Bridwell.