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Coast Guard drops charges against crash survivor

Lt. Lance Leone faced 3 counts related to fatal impact, administrative action still possible

Posted: March 6, 2012 - 7:08pm  |  Updated: March 7, 2012 - 1:04am
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.

“Charges Dropped!!!!!!”

That’s how the mother of U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Lance Leone found out that homicide charges against her son had been dismissed on Tuesday — a pithy but powerful email from Leone’s lawyer, John M. Smith of Arlington, Va.

Mother Heather Rice quickly texted her son to make sure it was true. He responded, “Yes :)”

“I am so proud of my son, standing strong through all this,” Rice said. “... I wish I was in Sitka to send him the huge hug I want to give him.”

The Coast Guard announced it had dropped charges against Leone, the co-pilot and sole survivor of a 2010 fatal Coast Guard helicopter crash in Washington, in a press release a few hours later.

“In this case, based on my review of evidence produced by the Article 32 investigation, I decided that Leone’s actions did not merit a court martial,” Rear Adm. Thomas P. Ostebo, commander of Coast Guard District 17, stated in the release.

Leone, 31, was the subject of a three-day Article 32 pretrial hearing in Juneau in December after the Coast Guard charged him with negligent homicide in the deaths of two of his colleagues. The hearing was to determine if Leone should face a court-martial hearing.

The 10-year Coast Guard veteran, who had just been transferred to Alaska from his base in Elizabeth City, N.C., was copiloting a helicopter traveling at low altitude when it hit power lines and crashed off the coast of Washington in July of 2010. Three Coast Guardsmen died in the crash: Brett Banks, 33, of Green River, Wyo., Adam C. Hoke, 40, of Great Falls, Mont., and the pilot-in-command of the mission, Sean Krueger, 33, of Seymour, Conn. Leone was not charged in connection to Krueger’s death.

The crew of the Sitka-based MH-60T Jayhawk were ferrying the chopper from Astoria, Ore., to their base in Sitka when it collided with power cables near La Push, Wash.

Leone was also charged with dereliction of duty and destruction of the helicopter, worth about $18.3 million, for failing to properly navigate the helicopter to avoid charted hazards and for failure to ensure it was flying at a higher altitude. He was also charged with failure to employ crew resource management. All those are violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The charges, which were leveled in September of last year, came as a shock to Leone’s family, who say he had already been cleared by two investigation boards and was given the green light to fly again. “Totally unbelievable,” Leone’s father George and stepmother Renée told the Empire during the hearings. “No logic in it. None. No new facts found.”

Family members of those killed echoed the sentiment, as did many others from Sitka who came to Juneau to attend the hearings. Kyla Krueger, the wife of the pilot in charge of the mission, flew to Juneau from the East Coast in part to make her support of Leone known.

“I came today first and foremost for myself so that I could hear information first-hand and so that I can be here to attempt to bring closure to the situation for myself, but maybe more importantly to support Lance and to support the Leone family,” she told the Empire earlier.

After three days of hearing experts and witnesses testifying, the investigating Coast Guard officer, Capt. Andrew Norris, gave his recommendation to Ostebo. The Associated Press reported Norris recommended the charges be dropped, though Ostebo wasn’t bound by that recommendation.

Ostebo dropped the charges, but said the circumstances warranted the hearings against Leone.

“The American people rightly demand and deserve the service’s total commitment in preparing and leading our Coast Guard men and women to conduct our missions in the high-risk maritime environment,” Ostebo said in the statement. “The deaths of three Coast Guardsmen and the circumstances warranted the fullest investigation into the charges against Leone.”

Leone’s family disagrees.

“This has been a horrific experience for all of us,” Heather Rice wrote, adding in another email, “My son is certainly an amazing survivor to the crash, then surviving the Coast Guard turning against him.”

Ostebo was not available for an interview, Coast Guard spokeswoman Veronica Colbath said on Tuesday, because technically, the investigation into contributing factors of the crash is still ongoing. A final action memo still has to be completed, and will be available to the public when it is, she said.

Though the charges have been dropped, Colbath also said Leone could still face administrative action.

“Once the investigation is complete, there still could be administrative procedures that are taken towards the member,” she said.

Colbath stressed it is “standard” for the Coast Guard to follow the code of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in order to hold Coast Guard members accountable.

“The military justice system provides the surest means to fairly determine when and how its people should be held accountable for their actions,” said Ostebo in the statement.

An internal email within the District 17 office reiterated the same thing.

“Our values require respect for our shipmates — both our dead and our living; honor for doing the right thing even when it may be unpopular; and devotion to duty which, in this case, means following the evidence wherever it would lead,” wrote District 17 Chief of Staff Capt. Norman “Buddy” Custard.

Leone, who is still stationed at Sitka in the safety department, was busy Tuesday being briefed by his lawyer and resolving loose ends, his mother said.

“It is not a cut-and-dry situation,” she said. “Administrative actions have to be resolved.”

Rice says she’s still relishing the good news that the charges have been dismissed, and could not help crying for joy when she heard the good news.

“Emotionally, this is a tearful time,” she said. “He is totally amazing how he handled all this.”

Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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