March 27, 1998 in Nation/World

Plane’s Crew Charged In Deaths On Ski Lift Involunatary Manslaughter, Negligent Homicide Among Charges Marine Crew Faces

Bradley Graham Washington Post

Military authorities have charged the fourman crew of a Marine jet that severed a cablecar wire in the Italian Alps with involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and damage to military and private property, Defense Department officials said Thursday.

The charges, due to be announced today, follow an investigation that blamed the crew for causing the Feb. 3 disaster, which sent 20 Europeans on the ski lift plummeting to their deaths.

Investigators concluded the plane, an EA-6B Prowler surveillance jet, was flying too low and too fast, not only at the time it sliced the wire but also repeatedly during the training flight.

The aircraft and crew belong to a Marine squadron normally based in Cherry Point, N.C., that was on temporary assignment in Aviano, Italy, as part of the international Bosnian peacekeeping mission.

The crew returned to North Carolina earlier this month after NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, rejected Italy’s request that the four officers be handed over to Italian authorities for prosecution.

By issuing a tough investigative report and moving quickly to press charges against the crew, senior Marine officials have attempted to quell the public and political outrage that the accident has triggered in Italy.

But just what prompted the Prowler team to violate military flight rules remains a mystery to Marine authorities. The crew members - Capts. Joseph Schweitzer, William L. Raney II, Chandler P. Seagraves and Richard J. Ashby, the pilot - have refused to be interviewed by military investigators, invoking their legal right to avoid questioning in anticipation of criminal proceedings.

They now will face the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury, a pretrial investigation to determine whether the charges should be referred to a court-martial.

That hearing will be held at Camp Lejeune, N.C., but no date has been announced. The officer who will conduct the proceeding is Lt. Col. Ronald L.Rogers, a Marine Corps military judge.

Rogers’ recommendations will be passed on to Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, commander of the U.S. Marines in the Atlantic. He will decide whether the proceedings might move forward to a court-martial, should that be recommended.

“These guys haven’t talked to investigators,” said a senior military official, “but it’ll be in their interest now to tell their side of the story.”

Investigators also have recommended administrative action against the squadron commander and several other supervising officers for lapses in training and flight preparation. A separate Marine inquiry is reviewing this aspect of the case, with orders to report by April 15.

Court-appointed engineers working for Italian prosecutors concluded the Prowler jet was flying at only 356 feet when the accident occurred. The authorized minimum altitude of the flight was 1,000 feet.

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