The man at the centre of one the most sensational true crime stories in B.C. history has broken his silence, shedding new light on a story still riddled with questions.
Jerry Ambrozuk disappeared for 24 years after ditching a small plane in a Montana lake in 1982, leaving his girlfriend to drown.
On Friday, Ambrozuk spoke to Keith Morrison with Dateline NBC, his first public statement since his 2007 trial, revealing new details about the young couple’s plan to elope — and what he said went wrong.
At his trial, the court heard the couple’s alleged plan, a scheme that involved eloping, faking a plane crash and then disappearing to South America.
Some facts of the case are certain. Ambrozuk, then 19, and his girlfriend Dianne Babcock, then 18, climbed into a rented Cessna 150 at the Vancouver International Airport in August 1982 and flew to Penticton.
The next day they flew to Montana, where the plane crashed in Little Bitterroot Lake. The plane flipped; Ambrozuk survived but Babcock was left in the plane.
Nearly two and a half decades later, police caught up with Ambrozuk, living in Dallas, Texas, under the assumed name Michael Smith and working as a successful computer entrepreneur with a Dodge Viper in his garage.
WATCH: From the archives: The B.C. fugitive who hid in Texas for 24 years
At his trial, he cut a plea deal and was handed a pair of concurrent 10-year suspended sentences before being deported to Canada.
“We had a crazy plan, planned it for months. We eloped, and unfortunately, a tragic accident happened and Diane ended up drowning,” Ambrozuk told Dateline NBC.
“I went into shock and lost — basically out of my mind — and took off and spent the next 24 years in Texas trying to recover and slowly get back to becoming a productive citizen.”
In the interview, Ambrozuk laid out what he said was the origin of the young couple’s plan to ditch the plane and disappear to start new lives: Hollywood.
“We ended up watching this movie called Tarzan the Ape Man and also Apocalypse Now, so we came up with this crazy plan to elope and live in the jungle and live off the land,” he told Morrison.
Many of the questions that have swirled around the case — and that have tormented the Babock family — surround what happened when the plane crashed and whether Ambrozuk tried hard enough to save his girlfriend.
In his telling of the story, Ambrozuk claims the crash was so violent and the plane sank so quickly, there was nothing he could do.
“When the wheels hit the water, it was like hitting a cement wall,” he told Dateline NBC.
“By the time I got to the door and got to try and open it, and when it did open and the water started rushing in, the plane was almost completely underneath the water because of all the broken-out windshield and the side, door windows,” he explained.
WATCH: From the archives: Jerry Ambrozuk arrested
“I’m laying halfway in the water, halfway on the wing, with my arm trying to hold the door open and reach in and get Diane, and all of a sudden the plane just submerges under the water, and that’s how it ended,” Ambrozuk said.
Ambrozuk insists it was a coincidence that he managed to make it to shore with just one waterproof bag, a bag that contained only his clothes and some cash.
On shore, he said he went into shock — then fled to New York, followed by Texas.
In the interview, Ambrozuk also shed light on how he assumed a new identity.
“I went to a cemetery and found somebody that had deceased, that was less than a year old, so he would not have any record on him, dental record, doctor’s record or anything,” he told Morrison.
“Same day, went to the records building in Dallas and asked for a birth certificate — here’s his name, here’s his birthdate. Five minutes later, the guy came back with a certified copy, no questions asked.”
WATCH: From the archives: Ambrozuk cuts a plea deal
The lead investigator on the file from the 1980s, Ron Peterson, still thinks there’s more information that needs to come forward and still believes there are questions that remain unanswered.
Margot Harper, a reporter at the Vancouver Sun in 1982, was there when Babcock’s body was pulled from the lake. She says it’s a story she still hasn’t forgotten.
“When they pulled the plane out of the water, there was a life raft in it, wigs and disguises and survival gear. It’s a case that the more you look at it, the more questions you have,” she told Global News.
Babcock’s family hasn’t spoken about the incident, except at Ambrozuk’s trial, and was never satisfied with his plea deal, which saw him spend just nine months in jail.
—With files from Aaron McArthur