By BECKY BOHRER
the Associated Press
JUNEAU — More than a year had passed since the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crash off Washington state killed three of Lt. Lance Leone’s colleagues.
The sole survivor and co-pilot, Leone had recovered from his injuries and been cleared, his father said, for flight re-training.
But that never happened. Instead, Leone was charged with negligent homicide and other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in connection with the July 2010 accident.
The decision stunned Leone’s family and friends as well as the parents of one of the victims, Brett Banks. “We’re very upset about it,” Banks’ mother, Sandra, said by telephone from her home in Green River, Wyo. “We don’t think it should be happening. Another family’s being destroyed and it’s breaking our hearts.”
The charges against Leone, which the Coast Guard hasn’t publicly specified in detail, will be heard beginning Wednesday in Juneau. Both sides will be allowed to make arguments during the Article 32 hearing with an investigating officer making eventual recommendations to the Coast Guard’s commanding officer in Alaska, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, for the next course of action.
Possibilities include dismissal of the charges, administrative action or court martial, Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow said. Leone faces a possible maximum penalty that includes 7 1/2 years in prison if convicted on all courts at a court martial.
The 31-year-old Leone, who has earned a long list of Coast Guard awards and accolades, including commendation medals, was the co-pilot of the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter flying from Astoria, Ore., to the crew’s base in Sitka, Alaska, when it crashed off LaPush, Wash., last year. Witnesses told media outlets the helicopter was flying low and hit power cables strung 1,900 feet from LaPush to James Island. Leone was pulled from the water by Good Samaritans.
Lance Leone, who is currently serving in an administrative position, wasn’t available for comment. But his father, George, said his son wasn’t at the controls and did everything he was supposed to be doing as navigator that day.
George Leone claimed the helicopter hit unmarked wires, which had orange warning balls near the poles instead of dotting the span.
“And the sole survivor, they’re trying to blame him,” said George Leone, who is from Palm Bay, Fla., but has been at his son’s home in Sitka lately. “It’s just unbelievable.”
The lines were maintained by the Coast Guard, and it wasn’t the first accident involving them, according to court records: There was a fatal accident in 1961 and another collision in the late-1950s, according to a 1965 federal appeals decision. That decision, in the 1961 case, found the Coast Guard failed to exercise “reasonable care” by not having warning devices installed but said the probability of resulting harm wasn’t great enough to find this constituted “wanton misconduct.”
Wadlow said he couldn’t answer questions about whether or how the lines were marked at the time of the 2010 crash, citing the investigation. He said that issue will be discussed at the hearing.
Leone faces charges of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destruction of government property. The charge sheet alleges 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 Banks, 33, of Rock Springs, Wyo., and Adam C. Hoke, 40, of Great Falls, Mont. There is no charge related to the third victim, the pilot, Lt. Sean Krueger, 33, of Seymour, Conn.
Leone’s civilian attorney, John Smith, who is part of his defense team, said the government hasn’t explained why that is. Wadlow said the charges were based upon the evidence collected. Ostebo said he couldn’t discuss the circumstances surrounding the case.
Sandra Banks said she was told by someone with the Coast Guard in early October that it was a two-pilot helicopter so both Leone and Krueger were considered pilots. She couldn’t recall who that person was but said she told him she considered the accident a circumstance of improperly marked lines. He told her there was new evidence.
Banks said she saw Leone this summer, and that she and her husband felt like they had closure after visiting the crash site and attending a memorial in Sitka in August. She said they consider the Leones — Leone has a wife and two young children — family.
“We just felt good about it after that, like we could go on,” she said. Now, “we’re hoping and praying he will be absolved, exonerated, that nothing will come of this.”