Body of fugitive Detroit airport boss discovered in manhunt

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Federal agents found the body of former Detroit Metropolitan Airport supervisor James Warner on Friday, one day after he failed to surrender to start a 10-year federal prison sentence for bribery.

Defendant James Warner, a former field inspector at Detroit Metro Airport who is charged with taking bribes, leaves the Theodore Levin Federal Courthouse in downtown Detroit on May 21, 2019.

U.S. Marshals Service deputies found Warner dead of an apparent suicide in the garage of his Commerce Township home on Friday morning, according to a court spokesman.

“There’s really nothing to say. It’s just a real shock, quite frankly,” his lawyer, Harold Gurewitz, said. “I’m sorry that this has happened.”

Judge sprung corrupt fugitive Detroit airport boss despite suicide fears

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Ex-Detroit Metro official sentenced to 10 years for bribery

Relatives told investigators they went out to dinner with Warner on Wednesday night and hadn't seen him since. Federal investigators visited Warner's home Friday, armed with an arrest warrant, and found his body inside the garage, dead of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning, a court spokesman said.

The discovery Friday capped one of the most lucrative bribery cases in U.S. history and added a bitter ending to a court fight between prosecutors and defense lawyers over whether Warner would kill himself or flee while on bond.

"I am glad that Mr. Warner was free and spent the remaining years of his life with his family," U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said in a statement to The Detroit News. She allowed Warner to remain free on bond after jurors returned a guilty verdict in summer 2019.

Authorities are investigating this at a house in Commerce Township on Friday afternoon after discovering the body of former Detroit Metro Airport Supervisor James Warner in the garage after an apparent suicide, one day after he failed to surrender to authorities to start a 10-year-federal-prison sentence for bribery and other crimes.

Warner was convicted of 10 crimes, including bribery, theft and money laundering conspiracies, and obstruction of justice in June 2019. Prosecutors say he steered $43.7 million worth of airport contracts to three co-conspirators in return for more than $6 million in kickbacks — the highest total in the history of public corruption cases in Metro Detroit and third-largest amount in U.S. history.

Prosecutors fought to keep Warner behind bars after he was found guilty by a jury. They argued Warner faced a long prison sentence and posed a flight risk.

"Now he has an incentive to flee," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eaton Brown told Roberts.

They noted his history of depression, suicidal thoughts and treatment for bipolar and major depressive disorders and asked the judge to jail Warner pending appeals.

Prosecutors also argued Warner had enough money to bankroll a flight from justice, noting that federal investigators had failed to find about $1.4 million in "ill-gotten" gains Warner received.

"Most importantly, we believe he is a risk of harm to himself," Brown told the judge on June 5, 2019.

Roberts freed him anyway.

An Oakland County sheriffs SUV stands by as authorities investigate at a house in Commerce Township Friday afternoon after discovering the body of former Detroit Metro Airport Supervisor James Warner in the garage.

Warner was sentenced in February 2020 and prosecutors renewed their push to have him jailed while his appeals were pending in federal courts.

Gurewitz, the defense lawyer, fought for Warner to remain free pending appeals, arguing the former airport boss was undergoing mental health treatment and had complied with bond conditions.

"He is neither a flight risk or a danger to the community," Gurewitz wrote.

Prosecutors pointed to an earlier incident that appeared to foreshadow this week's development.

"He has struggled with severe depression and suicidal thoughts for the majority of his life," Brown wrote in a March 2020 court filing. "Six months after confessing to FBI agents that he had accepted bribes and kickbacks from airport contractors in this case, his family found him suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning in a shed near his house."

Warner was allowed to remain on bond after the judge concluded "there is no evidence presented whatsoever, that Warner is a flight risk."

Warner spent the last two years fighting to overturn the conviction while free on bond. But last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case and he was ordered to surrender at 10 a.m. Thursday at the federal prison in Milan.

On Friday, the judge noted that Warner had followed all bond conditions and that his doctor certified that the former airport supervisor was not a danger to himself.

"It is not unusual that the court allowed him to remain on bond following his conviction and in this age of a pandemic ravaging our prison system," Roberts wrote in a statement to The News.

The case and trial drew attention because of the scope of the bribery and lurid details.

Airport contractor Gary Tenaglia of Rochester testified Warner wrote "5k," a proposed kickback amount, on a napkin, showed it to the contractor, then ate the evidence. The restaurant was named "It's A Matter of Taste."

The government has seized $11 million from Warner and co-conspirators during the years-long criminal investigation.

Warner is among more than 100 public officials, bureaucrats and union leaders charged with public corruption in Metro Detroit in the past decade.

Warner, an airport manager and field inspector who also worked for West Bloomfield Township, is the rare indicted public official to stand trial on corruption charges.

The bribery conspiracy outlined by prosecutors started in May 2010 when Warner was working as a field inspector at the airport approving maintenance and repair contracts. He headed several related schemes involving Metro Detroit contractors, including Romulus businessman William Pritula, whose company William Pritula & Sons held facilities and maintenance contracts at the airport, prosecutors said.