Anti-Drug Smuggling Mission Ends in Crash; Eight Killed
OCOTILLO, Calif. (AP) _ An Army National Guard helicopter on a nighttime anti-drug smuggling mission clipped a power line and smashed into a desert hillside, killing the five lawmen and three guardsmen aboard, officials said Tuesday.
The fiery crash Monday came on the first night of Operation Border Ranger, a joint anti-drug smuggling program conducted by six Southern California sheriff’s departments and the federal government, said National Guard Maj. Steve Mensik.
The program to stem the flow of drugs into the United States from Mexico has been suspended while the accident investigation is carried out, he said.
The UH-1H aircraft crashed while investigating a car parked on a remote access road off Interstate 8 in the Mountain Springs Grade area, about 70 miles east of San Diego, Mensik said.
″They were in the process of descending to get a closer look at the suspect vehicle. Apparently, at about 500 feet, they struck a power line that had been strung between two hilltops,″ he said.
Lt. Col. Gage of the Army National Guard, who declined to give his first name, told The Associated Press that the car observed by the helicopter apparently was a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle. When asked what happened to the car, he said: ″Nothing. I believe it turned out to be a Border Patrol vehicle. That’s the best estimate.″
Dale A. Musegades, the chief patrol agent for the El Centro Border Patrol sector, said a Border Patrol vehicle that was not involved in Operation Border Ranger was ″a few hundred yards from the crash scene.″ It is common practice for Border Patrol agents to dim their lights and park while on patrol, he added.
He couldn’t confirm that the helicopter had dropped down to check out the vehicle, Musegades said.
Imperial County sheriff’s Lt. Kenneth J. Koon said the helicopter smashed into the rocky foothills of the Laguna Mountains at 9:30 p.m. Monday and burst into flame.
″It was a very volatile fire. It burned everything. There was very little left of the aircraft and it’s going to be difficult to put it (the accident) together,″ Koon said.
In Washington, chief Pentagon spokesman Dan Howard said the crash was observed by a spotter helicopter, an OH-58, that was flying at a higher altitude.
Five deputies from four Southern California counties and a three-man California Army National Guard crew were aboard the helicopter.
Asked if the joint operation was the first of its kind, Koon said: ″To our knowledge, yes. Certainly anything to this magnitude, involving working relationships between that number of agencies for a single operation.″
Questioned about the status of the program, he replied, ″That’s a decision that will have to made by the sheriffs who put it together, but I think it’s a job that’s going to have to be done, one way or another.″
All of the victims died instantly when the fire broke out, according to a sheriff’s department statement.
The bodies have been recovered and deputies are guarding the crash scene, pending arrival of a team of safety investigators from the Army Safety Center in Fort Rucker, Ala., and the National Guard Safety Office.
The victims included Sgt. Richard G. Romero, 39, of El Centro, a 14-year veteran with the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office; Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Steve Tonkin, 31, of Chino; and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies Roy A. Chester, 41 and James D. McSweeney, 43.
Also killed were Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Davis and a three- man California Army National Guard crew. Guard spokesman Phil Jordan identified the three as Chief Warrant Officer 3 Geoffrey L. Nett, 42, of Corona; 2nd Lt. Eric J. Smeltzer, 29, Rialto; and Sgt. 1st Class Ramon M. Espinoz, 38, Westminster.
Nett, the pilot, was a veteran flier with an excellent record, Jordan said.
San Bernardino and San Diego counties also participate in the program, but had no personnel on board the craft Monday night.
The Guardsmen and their helicopter were assigned to Company D, 140th Aviation Division, based at Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center in Los Alamitos, 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles, he said.
Ocotillo is 40 miles west of El Centro and less than 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexican border.