The U.S. Coast Guard dropped its charges against Lt. Lance Leone on Tuesday.
The Sitka-based Coast Guard aviator was facing charges of negligent homicide and destruction of government property in connection with a 2010 helicopter crash. He also faced charges of dereliction of duty.
Leone’s attorney, John Smith, says his client was ecstatic upon hearing the news that the charges had been dropped.
“This is the beginning of a new chapter for him,” Smith said, adding that now it’s time for Leone to work toward returning to flight. “It’s been quite a while since he’s flown or piloted an aircraft, and I’m hoping that he is going to be able to go to retraining soon, pass that retraining, and look forward to a new assignment in the Coast Guard, flying and rescuing people in accordance with the Coast Guard mission.”
Leone was the co-pilot aboard Coast Guard helicopter 6017 when it struck some wires between the mainland and an island near La Push, Wash., on July 7, 2010. The crash killed the chopper’s pilot, Lt. Sean Krueger, along with Aviation Maintenance Technicians Brett Banks and Adam Hoke.
The crash was investigated by the Coast Guard, and Leone believed he had been cleared. He was on his way to train for a return to flight service when the charges were announced in September. The charges came as a surprise to him, and to many of his supporters in Sitka, where memorial signs still hang throughout the city’s downtown.
But retired Col. John Pharr, a former military attorney now in private practice in Anchorage, says he understands why Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, the commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska, pursued the charges as far as he did.
“For the sake of good order and discipline I’m sure he needed to feel like he didn’t leave any stone unturned,” Pharr said.
Pharr says the military operates on a culture of discipline and accountability. The decision not to head to trial doesn’t surprise Pharr, but neither did the decision to investigate the charges in the first place.
“The commander pursued the charges basically down a blind alley, and reached the end of the road, and said, ‘Well, OK, we really can’t go any farther than that. There just isn’t the proof there,'” Pharr said.
The decision not to pursue a court martial lines up with a recommendation made by Capt. Andrew Norris, the officer who presided over a December hearing of the Coast Guard’s evidence in the case. Norris didn’t say Leone was blameless in the flight, but he did say that the Coast Guard couldn’t draw clear links between Leone’s actions and the crash.
In a statement released Tuesday, Ostebo said his decision was based on a review of the evidence from December’s hearing, and that Leone’s actions do not merit a court martial.
Ostebo said that Coast Guard operations are inherently dangerous, and that “The deaths of three Coast Guardsmen and the circumstances warranted the fullest investigation into the charges against Leone.”
Still, Pharr says there are administrative sanctions that could still apply, such as a letter of reprimand. That would make it very difficult for Leone to get back in the cockpit.
“Of course bear in mind that the Coast Guard of 2012 is something that could be different than the Army that I was in years ago,” Pharr said. “So, things do change, policies change, but from what I know about the military this put him in a hole and it may not be something he can climb out of.”
Lt. Veronica Colbath is a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard in Alaska. She says there’s still some investigation is ongoing, and confirms that administrative sanctions are still possible. And the charges were dismissed without prejudice, which means if new information comes to light, they could be re-instated.
She said more information on the investigation is likely due out in the next couple weeks.