A Marine Corps jet squadron commander who was relieved of his command last week after the ski-lift accident in Northern Italy is pictured on videotape aboard a military jet that was flying too low last year in the vicinity of the ski lift, a high-ranking Marine officer at the Pentagon said Wednesday.
The commander was disciplined for suggesting to his men that they destroy videotape evidence in an investigation involving the collision with a ski lift last week in Cavalese.
According to a tape made by home video camera carried aboard a low-flying military jet, the commander, Lt. Col. Stephen L. Watters, is “flying below the minimum altitude of 1,000 feet,” said the officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity The tape was made last year “in the general area” of Cavalese, Italy, where the ski-lift accident occurred, but not at that exact spot, he said.
“The tape doesn’t show anything that endangers anybody or is any threat to life, but it does show they are breaking regulations,” said the officer. He said the videotape was made at an altitude of 500 to 1,000 feet. The EA-6B Prowler jet involved in the accident was flying at about 260 feet hen it hit the cables, according to Italian investigators.
Watters was not the commander of the squadron involved in the ski lift accident last week; his squadron had rotated through Italy and is back at its base at the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C.
But the fact that a second Prowler has been found to have violated altitude restrictions in the area is certain to add to the uproar in Italy over the accident. The Marines have acknowledged that the Prowler was flying too low but it has refused to discuss its altitude.
According to the Marine officer at the Pentagon, Watters told his crews soon after the accident, “if you have any tapes, make them disappear.” Prowler crews, which are trained to fly low to detect enemy radars and jam them, commonly carry home video cameras to make tapes to show friends, according to people who have flown in the planes.
But one of the men under Watters’ command complained to the colonel that “that’s not the right thing to say; that could be construed as obstruction of justice.” Then, according to the Pentagon, Watters called a second meeting, with a slightly different group in attendance, and said that if there were tapes, they should turn them over to him.
“I’ll decide what’s to be done,” the colonel said, according to the Pentagon officer.
At that point, one of the men in the squadron complained to Maj. Gen. Michael Ryan, the commanding general of the Second Marine Air Wing, and Ryan began an investigation. When asked if he had a tape, Watters turned it over, the Pentagon officer said, and Ryan watched it.
Watters, a 19-year veteran of the Marines who is known by the nickname Muddy, said in a brief telephone interview from his home near Cherry Point on Wednesday evening that he could not comment because the matter was still under investigation. Altitude regulations, like speed limits for motorists, vary. Crews practice flying low through valleys, to hide from enemy radars. But outside combat zones, they are supposed to stay above the minimum altitudes established by local regulations.
On Tuesday the Marine Corps said Watters had been suspended from his job because of “statements made to his squadron to destroy potential evidence.” The Pentagon officer confirmed Wednesday that the “potential evidence” was videotapes.