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Officer: Drop charges in Coast Guard crash case

Posted: January 8, 2012 - 1:09am

JUNEAU — Charges against the sole survivor of a deadly 2010 Coast Guard helicopter crash off the Washington coast should be dismissed, an investigating officer has determined.

Capt. Andrew Norris, in recommendations obtained by The Associated Press, said he didn’t conclude Lt. Lance Leone was faultless in the flight.

But Norris said the charges against Leone — negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destroying military property — focus on alleged navigational failures by Leone and tie those alleged failures to the destruction of a helicopter and death of two crew members.

“It is in this focus, and in making this tie, that I believe the charged offenses fail,” he wrote.

Norris’ recommendations will be reviewed by the Coast Guard commander in Alaska, who is not bound by them.

Leone was co-pilot of the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter flying from Astoria, Ore., to the crew’s base in Sitka, Alaska, when it hit an unmarked span of low-hanging wires and crashed off LaPush, Wash., in July 2010.

The crash killed two crew members — Brett Banks of Rock Springs, Wyo., and Adam C. Hoke of Great Falls, Mont. — and the pilot, Lt. Sean Krueger of Seymour, Conn.

The negligent homicide charges were related to Hoke and Banks’ deaths. Leone was not charged in Krueger’s death.

Prosecutors, during a military hearing last month, argued Leone did not fulfill his duties, which included acting as a navigator and safety officer, and should face court martial. Leone’s civilian defense attorney, John Smith, countered the Coast Guard had “set a trap” by not marking the power lines that the aircraft hit.

The crash’s lead investigator called the lines a contributing factor but said there was no reason for the aircraft to be flying so low.

Norris, in his report, said “reasonable grounds” exist to believe Leone “committed the crime of negligent dereliction of duty” for not questioning or speaking up about the aircraft’s altitude.

He said it could be argued that had Leone advised Krueger he was flying too low for the circumstances, it may have helped dissuade Krueger from making “the snap, fatal decision” to fly over the Coast Guard vessel at a low altitude.

“Proceeding in accordance with this theory is the only way I can see to causally link the accused’s derelictions with the crash and deaths,” Norris wrote.

But Norris said he doesn’t think the government could prove this link to a “reasonable fact-finder,” because it requires “speculations and suppositions as to what Lt. Krueger may or may not have done in response to such advisements, if given, that are simply unknowable.”

Norris added he believes the issue can be addressed through training and other “non-punitive measures,” rather than disciplinary action.

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