Coast Guard crash survivor to get hearing in Juneau

The survivor of a 2010 Coast Guard helicopter crash has his first day in court this week.

Lt. Lance Leone is expected to appear Wednesday before a military judge in Juneau. The Coast Guard has brought charges against Leone for the loss of a Coast Guard helicopter in July 2010, and the deaths of two of its crewmembers.

The chopper and its crew were based in Sitka, where community members who support Leone have taken up a collection for his legal defense.

KCAW’s Ed Ronco reports.

Leone is facing three charges from the Coast Guard: One says he failed to navigate away from charted hazards. Another charges him with the destruction of the chopper. Those are both misdemeanors. The third charge consists of two felony charges: It says Leone negligently caused the deaths of Petty Officer First Class Adam Hoke and Petty Officer Second Class Brett Banks. Leone is not facing charges in connection with the death of the helicopter’s commander, Lt. Sean Krueger.

Wednesday’s proceeding is called an Article 32 hearing. It’s similar to a grand jury proceeding in civilian court, with a few differences.

“Unlike a civilian grand jury, the Article 32 is an adversary hearing. The accused can be there – well, not only can be there, but can be there and represented by counsel,” says Lt. Col. John Pharr, who’s retired from the Army’s Judge Advocate General corps, and now is an attorney in private practice in Anchorage.

Pharr says in addition to Leone’s ability to be present, the hearing will include a full airing of the evidence against Leone.

“It’s a tactical decision, like any other, whether the accused would actually testify,” says Pharr. “But the military system has all the protections of the civilian system. In fact, it resembles it in more ways than it differs from it.”

Instead of a panel of grand jurors, Leone’s case will be heard before an investigating officer, in this case Capt. Andrew Norris, a Coast Guard Judge Advocate, stationed at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

“Once the evidence has been presented, he will then write his recommendation and provide that to Admiral Ostebo, and Admiral Ostebo will then determine the next course of action to take,” says Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska.

Wadlow is referring to Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard district that encompasses all of Alaska. Ostebo can decide to drop charges, handle the matter internally, or send the case on to a court martial, which would put Leone on trial.

While this is happening, friends in Sitka have established a legal defense fund for Leone, through the law office Pearson & Hanson. Mike Finn is one of those friends. The charges were filed on September 30th, and he says the time since then has been frustrating.

It’s hard to get answers right now,” Finn says. “There’s not a lot of people who want to talk about or that can talk about it. There’s a lot of people that want to help that can’t. So it’s just one of those things that I feel a personal interest in wanting to get the word out, and get the proper word out, and tell people some of the things going on with this case that aren’t being aired.”

Finn says he has many concerns, including a feeling that Leone is being singled out for punishment by a command that’s concerned about its safety image. And he says the charges against Leone have changed his view of the Coast Guard as an institution. His 11-year-old son has shown interest in joining, but Finn says he won’t support the decision if Leone is convicted.

That’s a different reaction than the one held by Leone’s father, George.

“I still love them. I love their mission. It is upsetting to know what’s happening at present,” says George Leone. “But I believe he will be rescued and vindicated because my son didn’t do anything wrong.”

George Leone says his son was questioned in the aftermath of the accident, and that the investigation appeared to be over. He says Lance Leone was about to get the green light to fly again.

“He got a call from Washington that his training’s been canceled,” the elder Leone says.

The charges were filed not long after. George Leone says he’s been awed by the support the community of Sitka showed in the aftermath of the crash, and the support from the Coast Guard. That support including a hospital visit from Admiral Robert Papp, the Coast Guard commandant. Papp is the highest ranking officer in the Coast Guard, and when the charges were filed, George Leone called him at home. He says he didn’t get to talk to Papp, but spoke to his wife.

“So what did I want to tell Papp when I called him? I just wanted to say ‘Thank you, thank you, for all the love and support, but I want to understand what’s going on and please stop. How can they do a tremendous investigation, they spent thousands of man hours, put together a report, and they said ‘Lance didn’t do anything wrong. They hit some wires out there,’ or whatever. And now to come up with this, when he got the green light to go flying, they’re slapping the face of all the people that did this investigative report. They said there’s nothing wrong with it. Where’s this coming from?”

George Leone might not have received an answer to that question – “Where is this coming from?” – but after Wednesday’s hearing he and his son, Lt. Lance Leone, might have a clearer idea of where it’s going.

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