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Billionaire sued over copter crash that killed friend

MIAMI — A $100 million lawsuit has been filed against a Florida billionaire over a 2012 helicopter crash in the Bahamas that killed a prominent tax attorney.

The widow of attorney Lance Valdez filed the wrongful death suit Monday in Miami federal court against real estate magnate Jeffrey Soffer. He owns the Fontainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach and is CEO of the Turnberry Associates real estate empire, and he’s also married to model Elle Macpherson.

The lawsuit contends Soffer was piloting the helicopter in November 2012 when it crashed during a landing attempt at the exclusive Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club on Great Guana Cay, killing his friend Valdez.

Soffer was licensed at the time to fly fixed-wing aircraft but not helicopters, the lawsuit says. It adds he was flying the aircraft even though there was an experienced helicopter pilot on board.

“He was recklessly flying and controlling the helicopter at the time of the helicopter crash without an up-to-date and valid helicopter pilot’s license,” according to the lawsuit.

Soffer and four others survived the crash. Macpherson was not involved.

Soffer’s attorney, Bob Martinez, said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the lawsuit has no merit.

“Mr. Soffer denies all the allegations of wrongdoing contained in the complaint,” the statement added. It also said Soffer was very sympathetic to the widow and the children “for their grave loss” and that he “still mourns deeply the death of his good friend Lance Valdez.”

Just before the ill-fated landing attempt, the lawsuit says that Soffer flew over a golf course “and pointed out his house and yacht.” The helicopter was a few feet off the ground when it suddenly encountered wind turbulence, jerked back some 75 feet and crashed with the tail section striking first, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims Soffer and others covered up the fact that he was at the controls so Valdez’s widow, Daria Pastouhkova Gogoleva, and their three minor children would be limited to a $2 million insurance payment. Otherwise, Soffer could be held personally liable for damages.

A still-grieving Gogoleva was pressured to sign a release stating that she would not take legal action against Soffer or anyone else aboard the helicopter, the lawsuit added. It says she was falsely told that the licensed helicopter pilot, David Pearce, was the one at the controls when it went down.

“Despite being responsible for the loss of his friend, Soffer repeatedly lied to and intentionally deceived Daria about his involvement in the crash in an effort to persuade her to pursue an insurance recovery rather than a claim against him,” the lawsuit says.