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All Counts Dropped Against Marine for Jet Fighter Joy Ride

Times Staff Writer

All charges against an El Toro Marine corporal who took a jet fighter on a Fourth of July joy ride have been dropped and he will be discharged from the military today, the Marine Corps announced Thursday.

“This was a very unusual case in which a Marine with a tremendous amount of skill and great potential did a very stupid thing which could have resulted in a tragic loss of life,” Brig. Gen. D.E.P. Miller, commanding officer of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, said in a written statement.

Miller said the charges filed against Lance Cpl. Howard A. Foote Jr. “are very serious and his lack of judgment and violation of trust make it impossible to keep him in the Marine Corps.

“However, I feel that the 4 1/2 months he has served in confinement, coupled with an other-than-honorable discharge, will adequately serve justice in this case.”

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Parents Overjoyed

Shirley Foote said Thursday that she and her husband “are very overjoyed” that their son will be released today. “When we heard it, we were jumping in the air,” she said.

She said she believed that what her son “went through was overkill on the part of the Marine Corps. I think they went overboard. It could have been handled a lot less detrimentally to both the Marines and our son.”

The Marine Corps has said that Foote, 21, a Los Alamitos native and record-holding glider pilot before entering the service in 1984, donned a flight suit at 2 a.m. on July 4 and climbed aboard an unarmed A-4M Skyhawk at the El Toro base. He took off from an unlighted runway and returned about 40 minutes later, flying over the base several times before landing.

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At a hearing in August, an aviation maintenance officer at the base testified that the jet Foote flew was in need of repair. Maj. Frank B. Kennedy III testified that the aileron rigging on the plane was out of alignment and that the nose wheel steering mechanism was not working properly.

“From a maintenance standpoint, it was not a flyable airplane,” Kennedy said.

Injury Kept Him Out

According to Foote’s parents, he took the plane after finding out that an injury he had suffered during an attempt to break the world glider altitude record would prevent him from becoming a jet fighter pilot, a goal they say he had pursued since he was a young boy.

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The dismissal of charges and Foote’s discharge came about as a result of long negotiations between Marine Corps authorities and his defense attorneys, Michael J. Naughton of Laguna Hills and Capt. Brad Garber.

As part of the agreement, Foote wrote a letter of apology to Miller in which he said, “I realize now that my actions were not only foolhardy, but downright dangerous . . . even though I have some civilian pilot ratings and am qualified in a glider, this training is not sufficient for one to fly a high-performance military jet safely. . . .

“Though I would like to repay the Marine Corps for the problems I have created, I understand that it would be difficult for the Marine Corps to take me back.”

Foote had been scheduled for a general court-martial next Wednesday on charges of misappropriating the $14-million, single-seat jet fighter and a maintenance truck he drove to the plane.

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If he had been convicted, Foote could have faced a maximum sentence of nine years at hard labor, forfeiture of all pay, demotion to private and a dishonorable discharge.

Confined to Brig

Because there is no prison facility at the El Toro base, Foote, an aviation mechanic assigned to a base maintenance squadron at the time of the incident, had been confined in the brig at Camp Pendleton since his arrest.

Foote was originally charged with misappropriating the truck and plane, damaging the aircraft and disobeying regulations.

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He also was charged with hazarding a vessel--flying without proper training or approval and recklessly disregarding the plane’s mechanical condition. That charge technically could have resulted in the death penalty under centuries-old maritime law.

However, all the charges except those accusing him of misappropriating the plane and the truck were dismissed some time ago.

During Foote’s pretrial hearing he was described as a dedicated Marine with a spotless service record who was highly motivated to become a fighter pilot.

Garber, his military attorney, said at that hearing that Foote’s unauthorized flight should be treated for what it was--"a once-in-a-lifetime flight from reality . . . not a beginning of criminal conduct.”

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