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Sitka commander was prepared to drop charges

Posted: December 9, 2011 - 1:08am
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Lance Leone walks toward the Federal Court in Juneau Wednesday for his Article 32 hearing. Lt. Leone is charged with negligent homicide and other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in connection with the 2010 helicopter crash that killed three colleagues off the Washington coast.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Lance Leone walks toward the Federal Court in Juneau Wednesday for his Article 32 hearing. Lt. Leone is charged with negligent homicide and other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in connection with the 2010 helicopter crash that killed three colleagues off the Washington coast.

JUNEAU — The commander of Air Station Sitka testified Thursday he was prepared to recommend that allegations against the co-pilot in a fatal helicopter crash be dropped, but those plans were trumped by the new Coast Guard admiral in Alaska.

Cmdr. William Cameron testified Thursday in a hearing to help determine whether Lt. Lance Leone should face a court-martial in the July 2010 crash off the Washington coast, in which three others onboard died.

Cameron said he based his decision after reading the crash investigation report and hearing the best case against Leone from a Coast Guard attorney. Leone had been cleared for flight retraining by an evaluation board, and Cameron supported this move, which included probationary flight periods.

Cameron then said his decision was “somewhat overrun by events.”

In August, Cameron met with the new Coast Guard commander in Alaska, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, at a memorial service for the crash victims.

Cameron said he told Ostebo he intended to take no action.

“He said, ‘Perhaps I had gotten too close emotionally to Lt. Leone or something like that,’” and lost objectivity, Cameron testified. He then wrote a detailed memo, spelling out the reasons for his conclusions.

Lt. Cmdr. Anita Scott, a defense attorney, asked if the conversation was confrontational. Cameron replied it was a “classic conversation” with Ostebo, whom he said can be aggressive and take charge of conversations.

Ostebo will ultimately decide what happens with the case.

Leone is the sole survivor of the crash. He is charged with negligent homicide and other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In testimony earlier Thursday, the accident’s lead investigator testified a 1,900-foot span of unmarked wires contributed to the crash, but there was no reason for the aircraft to be flying low enough to hit the wires.

Capt. Timothy Heitsch, under cross-examination, said that as an aviator, he did not believe the lines were marked in a way they could have been seen. The government stipulated that the lines, which spanned from LaPush, Wash., to James Island, descend from 190 feet to 36 feet and had red marker balls 20 inches in diameter. Heitsch testified the balls were pooled near the pole, above land, and not across the water.

The helicopter hit the wires, according to the record and testimony, at about 114 feet.

A Coast Guard prosecutor, Cmdr. Matthew Fay, maintained there is no requirement to mark the wires at that height. The wires were the responsibility of the Coast Guard.

Heitsch repeated his contention that the helicopter was flying too low, saying it should have been no lower than 2,000 feet when it flew over a wildlife refuge, and that Leone was “not actively navigating.”

Leone’s attorney, John Smith, said the pilot, Lt. Sean Krueger, shut off the autopilot, which was on for a portion of the flight, shortly before the crash. He said it was around 240 feet on autopilot. According to testimony, the helicopter banked and dropped in altitude after the function was shut off, about 40 seconds before the wire strike. Heitsch said he believed the autopilot was on for training purposes.

The investigating officer, Capt. Andrew Norris, asked Heitsch whether Leone should have been expected to spot the lines within 40 seconds. Heitsch said he would have expected “active navigating” along the way. When asked what Leone did wrong in the final 40 seconds, Heitsch said he didn’t question the pilot’s intentions or ask what he was doing. “Nothing was verbalized,” Heitsch said.

He said he stands by his report and still believes charges are warranted.

Leone faces charges of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destruction of government property. The charge sheet states that Leone failed to properly navigate the helicopter to avoid charted hazards and that he negligently failed to ensure it was flying at a higher altitude.

It also alleges that he did “without proper authority, through neglect, destroy by causing the crash of CG-6017,” an aircraft valued at $18.3 million.

The negligent homicide charges are related to the deaths of Brett Banks, 33, of Rock Springs, Wyo., and Adam C. Hoke, 40, of Great Falls, Mont. There is no charge related to the death of Krueger, 33, of Seymour, Conn.

Krueger’s widow, Kyla, attended the hearing Thursday.

She wasn’t surprised some type of charges were brought but was surprised the Coast Guard has gone to the measures it has to bring these charges against Leone.

“Our families have gone through enough,” she told The Associated Press. “It was a tragedy. I don’t feel as though the Coast Guard needs to push to make this more of a travesty than a tragedy.”

Cameron said he didn’t consider this a careless flight crew. In Alaska, it’s not uncommon to fly low along the coast, Cameron said, adding that he didn’t think it would have made a difference if Leone had questioned the drop in altitude. Krueger, who was also had extensive Coast Guard awards and accolades, was comfortable at lower altitudes, and Leone was the new guy, recently assigned to Sitka, Cameron said. Had Leone been at his prior station, he probably would have asked questions, he said.

He concluded Leone’s actions were consistent with what pilots of comparable experience or standing would have done, failed to do or understood.

Norris, a Coast Guard judge advocate stationed in Rhode Island, is the investigating officer during the Article 32 hearing. He will make eventual recommendations to Ostebo for the next course of action. Norris said Ostebo is not bound by any recommendations he makes.

Possibilities include dismissal of the charges, administrative action or court-martial. Leone faces a possible maximum penalty that includes 7 1/2 years in prison if convicted on all counts at a court-martial.

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