Jury convicts BP engineer accused of deleting messages

A former BP engineer who studied how much oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon well blew out in April 2010 was found guilty in federal court Wednesday of one count of obstructing justice for deleting a string of text messages in an alleged effort to hamper the government’s criminal investigation of the deadly disaster.

Kurt Mix, 52, was found guilty of one charge and acquitted of another after jurors deliberated for more than nine hours over three days.

The case appeared on the verge of a mistrial Tuesday afternoon after jurors told the judge they had been deadlocked for most of the day, but they reached their decision after just one hour of further deliberation Wednesday.

Mix showed no reaction when the verdict was read just after 10 a.m. He hugged family members and friends seated in the front row of the courtroom; moments later, he declined to speak to a reporter as he walked out of the building.

He was released on his present bond. Sentencing was scheduled for March 26.

Mix faces a potential sentence of 20 years on the single count, but federal guidelines call for a sentence of about 18 months, said Loyola Law School professor Dane Ciolino. If Mix had pleaded guilty, Ciolino said, he could have cut about five months off his sentence.

In the courthouse lobby, Mix’s sister, Bridget Mix, said she was in disbelief at the trial’s outcome. “You can’t wrap your head around any of it,” she said.

Mix, who lives in Texas, was the first man tried in connection with the April 20, 2010, oil spill, widely considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Brought in by BP after its Macondo well erupted about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, Mix played no role in the fire and explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig or in the missteps by BP and other companies that led to the disaster, which killed 11 men. For nearly three months, millions of gallons of heavy crude spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and then into wetlands and onto beaches.

Days after the well blew out, Mix determined oil was flowing into the sea at a rate of from 64,000 to 110,000 barrels a day. At the time, BP officials were telling federal investigators and the public that only 5,000 barrels of oil were being released daily.

Two years later, Mix was indicted on obstruction-of-justice charges for deleting hundreds of text messages that he exchanged with a BP supervisor, Jonathan Sprague, and a BP contractor named Wilson Arabie. Mix had received numerous notices from BP to save his communications.

U.S. Justice Department prosecutors charged that Mix deleted the messages “corruptly” to dupe federal investigators about how much oil was spewing into the sea. They insisted that the timing of the deletions — coming days before the files were to be copied by a vendor BP hired to retain records — was too convenient to be coincidental.

In November 2012, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the indictments connected to the oil spill would serve as a warning to companies and their employees and “hold accountable those who bore responsibility for this tragedy.”

But Mix, along with BP supervisors Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, who also were indicted last year, maintain basically the same defense: that the government needed someone to take the fall for the disaster, and they were the easiest targets.

The two obstruction counts that Mix faced dealt with different strings of text messages that he stood accused of deleting. In the count on which he was found guilty, he was charged with deleting in October 2010 about 200 messages that he exchanged with Sprague. In the other count, on which he was found not guilty, Mix got rid of 100 messages exchanged with Arabie.

All but 17 of the deleted text messages were later recovered by forensic experts.

Prosecutors repeatedly pointed to a string of communications that Mix exchanged as workers prepared a so-called “top kill” procedure on the damaged well, which involved pumping heavy drilling mud to try to kill the flow of oil. The effort failed, largely because too much oil was gushing from the well, despite the low public estimates BP was making.

Near the end of the first day of that effort, Mix sent a message that cast doubt on the procedure’s potential. “Too much flow rate — over 15,000 and too large an orifice,” he said.

Throughout the 2 1/2-week trial, prosecutors and defense lawyers read many of the recovered messages in open court. Most seemed to be mundane exchanges about getting together to meet or eat lunch. In one, Mix talked about fixing his broken pool; in another, he sent a photograph of a sunflower. However, some dealt with the central issue of the rate at which oil was flowing from BP’s runaway well.

Kelly Bryson, an FBI special agent, testified that she did not present the recovered messages when she went before a grand jury last year considering criminal charges in the wake of the well blowout.

Defense attorneys contended that Mix backed up thousands of other documents related to the spill response. They said he accidentally deleted a string of messages from his phone with a single swipe of his finger across the screen, and that he had little incentive to shield the information from a grand jury.

In interviews after the trial ended, several jurors said the deciding factor between the two counts was hearing the testimony of the BP contractor who was on the receiving end of many of the deleted text messages.

Arabie, the BP contractor whose exchanges were the focus of the second count, testified that he didn’t believe most of them were relevant to the oil-spill response.

He called Mix “one of the best drilling engineers I’ve ever encountered,” and said his friend of several years “has a high degree of commitment to excellence in the work that he does.”

But unlike Arabie, Sprague never took the stand. That had an impact, jurors said, especially since the unrecoverable messages were exchanged with him.

“Sprague would have been the determining factor,” said juror William Gunn, 48, of New Orleans. “There were missing texts, and we couldn’t tell if they were relevant or not. He could have thrown the decision one way or the other.”

Without knowing what they said, Gunn said, the missing text messages were “suspicious.”

Juror Scott Galliano, 49, of Luling, said prosecutors and defense attorneys were “very, very thorough,” but that the missing text messages were “the unknown.”

Perhaps Sprague could have shed some light on their content, Galliano said. “Sprague was the other half of that unknown,” he said.

Ironically, Arabie — whose testimony jurors said was key to their decision to acquit Mix on the second count — was called as a witness by the government.

There was no debate throughout the trial about whether Mix got rid of messages from his work phone despite receiving 10 notices from BP to preserve all his relevant communications.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. told the jurors not to give “undue importance to the 17 unrecoverable text messages,” and instead to “look at them in the context of this entire case.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, the jurors asked the judge to clarify whether they should consider the content of the messages that were recovered. Duval said they could “review the content of the text messages as they are in evidence” in deciding if Mix got rid of the exchanges “knowingly and dishonestly and with the specific intent to subvert or undermine” a potential grand jury investigation.

Mix’s defense attorney, Joan McPhee, said after the verdict that she was “as convinced as ever of Kurt Mix’s innocence.”

“We intend to continue to fight to ensure that justice is done in this case,” she said.

Mythili Raman, the acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said the verdict “shows the commitment of the Justice Department to holding accountable those who interfere with the administration of justice.”

“Today a jury in New Orleans found that Kurt Mix purposefully obstructed the efforts of law enforcement during the investigation of the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history,” Raman said in a statement.

For more than a year, some legal observers questioned the government’s motivation for bringing charges against the engineer.

Blaine LeCesne, a law professor at Loyola University who has analyzed the criminal and civil cases stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, said the fact that the jury reached different verdicts on the two similar charges suggests that it was “evenly divided between conviction and acquittal, and they compromised, in a sense, of finding him guilty on one of these charges.”

“There’s no meaningful distinction between the two charges, in terms of the alleged obstruction of justice,” LeCesne said. “If you deleted the first group of messages, and you did essentially the same thing on the other batch of messages, I don’t see why one would warrant a conviction and the other would warrant an acquittal.”

BP pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the disaster earlier this year, admitting to 11 counts of felony manslaughter, obstruction of Congress and a series of environmental crimes. It agreed to pay a $4 billion fine. More than three years after the blowout, however, just four of its employees have been charged. Three of them, including Mix, were low-level workers.