Sitka commander was prepared to drop charges

By Becky Bohrer

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 9 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Friends and family of Lt. Lance Leone wait for his Article 32 hearing to begin on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011 at the Federal Court in Juneau, Alaska. From left are Sitka, Alaska business owner and town spokesperson Melissa Broshat, Mike Finn, Renee and George Leone. Lt. Leone is charged with negligent homicide and other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in connection with the 2010 incident that killed three colleagues off the Washington coast.

Klas Stolpe, Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska — An air station commander has testified that he told a Coast Guard rear admiral that he intended to take no action against the co-pilot in a fatal helicopter crash, but indicated that the plan was trumped by the senior officer.

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.

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

Cameron, commander of Air Station Sitka, said he was prepared to recommend the matter be dropped 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."

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

Ostebo asked if Cameron had finished his analysis of the crash investigation report. 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.

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 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.

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