Medina Inventor Dies In Jet Crash -- Peter LA Haye Made Fortune Saving Eyesight

Peter La Haye Sr., the Eastside entrepreneur who died with two other people in the crash of a private jet in northeast Pennsylvania yesterday, was a high-school dropout who made a fortune inventing products that help people see.

La Haye, 59, who opened his first business in his family garage, went on to develop implantable lenses for cataract patients, stick-on corrective lenses for sunglasses and a diet supplement designed to help prevent certain eye disorders.

Investigators had not released the victims' names this morning, but Sandra La Haye confirmed her husband had died in the crash.

Also killed were the plane's pilot and co-pilot. Coworkers confirmed one of the victims was Donald Slipper, 52, of Seattle, a longtime pilot who worked for La Haye. The co-pilot was also believed to be from the Seattle area.

Officials said no signs of trouble were heard over the radio as the Westwind 24 was directed to descend from 18,000 feet as it prepared to land at a New Jersey airport. The plane apparently dived steeply to the ground, leaving a crater when it crashed in the Pocono Mountains about 1:45 p.m. Seattle time yesterday.

A self-made multimillionaire, La Haye was honored for his philanthropy and served on the board of ORBIS International, a nonprofit group that travels to developing countries to perform eye surgery and train local doctors in eye-care techniques.

La Haye and his wife made news earlier this year by putting their 30,000-square-foot, 23-room waterfront mansion in Medina on the market for $45 million, said to be among the highest prices for a residence in U.S. history.

"Nobody needs a house this size," La Haye once said. "It's a hobby."

His accomplishments

Companies he founded included La Haye Laboratories and NEOPTX, both based in Redmond.

The laboratory's products include ICAPS, an antioxidant for people who suffer from macular degeneration. In 1998, Nestle subsidiary Alcon Laboratories bought the ICAPS line for an undisclosed sum.

NEOPTX makes soft reading lenses that can be stuck on sunglasses, safety glasses and diving masks. La Haye said he got the idea from the clear plastic decals that oil-change services put on the corner of car windshields.

Dan Bennett, quality manager for La Haye Laboratories, said workers there today were trying to deal with the tragedy.

"He was a one-of-the-guys kind of guy," Bennett said. Bennett said he had flown on the jet to California just last week and that La Haye, a licensed pilot, sometimes liked to fly the plane himself.

`A wonderful human being'

Some who knew La Haye said they will remember him not for his riches, but his unpretentious approach to life.

"He was very casual, he'd wear high-style jeans. You'd never pick him out in a crowd," said Sue Walter, who lives with her husband several docks down the lake from the La Haye mansion. "You could put all that (wealth) aside, and he was just a wonderful human being."

Walter said La Haye enjoyed boating and had recently purchased a "cigarette boat," an offshore-racing-style boat that can hit speeds above 80 mph. "He loves toys as well as his work," she said.

Walter said La Haye "appreciated what had been given to him, and he used his talents to the best."

Slipper, according to a longtime friend, Lorin French, was single and lived on his power sailboat moored at Harbor Island.

"He had a great passion for flying," French said. "Even in high school, he used to hang out after school at the airplane hangars hoping he would meet someone who would teach him to fly."

French said Slipper had worked for La Haye for several years and previously flew for other prominent area businesspeople. Over the years, his passengers had included Craig McCaw and Bill and Melinda Gates, French said.

La Haye's background

A native of Toronto, La Haye was the son of a beer-company representative who died young, leaving his wife to raise La Haye and his siblings in near poverty.

Sent to a Jesuit boarding school, he later dropped out of high school and did a tour in the Marine Corps, where he learned about infrared vision devices being used in the Vietnam War.

After he left the service, he started building infrared devices on a shoestring budget in his garage. He later won a Navy contract through his company, Diverse Technologies.

One of his later enterprises refined the intraocular lens used to treat cataract patients. In 1980, the company was sold to Johnson & Johnson for a sum reported to be about $80 million.

La Haye invested some of the profits in the home on Medina's Gold Coast.

During his 30-year career developing products that improve vision, La Haye patented nearly a dozen different products for patients with cataract disease and other eye problems.

La Haye and his wife had known each other since high school and were married about 40 years. They have three children and seven grandchildren.

A 1992 Seattle Times article described them as a low-profile couple more likely to support scientific research than make appearances on the gala circuit.

Their home, with the floor space of an average Albertson's supermarket, includes many special-activity rooms - rooms for gift-wrapping and flower-arranging, a sports room for rifles and fishing rods, and other rooms for wine storage, wine tasting and an indoor pool and spa.

The crash

According to the FAA, the plane departed from Boeing Field and was en route to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

FAA spokesman Jim Peters said the high-altitude air traffic control center in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., lost radio and radar contact with the aircraft as it was being directed to descend from 18,000 to 6,000 feet.

At the time of the crash, winds in the area were light and visibility was good, about 10 miles.

Jerry Gaughan, director of emergency services in Lackawanna County, Pa., said the plane crashed into a lightly wooded and hilly area at an elevation of about 1,500 feet.

Debris was scattered only about 100 yards, indicating the plane hit in an almost vertical dive, Gaughan said. No one on the ground was injured.

A cockpit voice recorder was recovered from the crash site, but the aircraft was not equipped with a flight-data recorder, officials said.

The Westwind 24 is manufactured by the Israeli Aviation Industry and is powered by two rear-mounted turbo jets, Peters said.

Witnesses reported seeing a small fire after the plane crashed in woods near a small mobile-home park.

Harry Lloyd and his 15-year-old son, Tim, said they saw the plane fly right over them and then veer off, dip down and pull back up, doing a barrel roll.

The elder Lloyd said there was a "muffled boom" when the plane started shooting upward. When the plane got back up to its highest point, it came down at an extremely sharp angle, they said.

Marie McBride, 69, was wrapping a Christmas present in her kitchen when she heard a terrifying explosion, followed by two other loud blasts.

"I heard the biggest, loudest sound you ever heard," McBride said. "My son went to the door, and everything was on fire. All we could see was fire."

Information was included in this report from Seattle Times staff reporters Susan Gilmore and Josh Robin and from The Associated Press.