A car theft suspect was booked on suspicion of murder Wednesday in the deaths of two Costa Mesa police officers and a civilian observer killed when two police helicopters collided over Irvine.
The helicopters were participating in a high-speed chase of an allegedly stolen car when they collided over a field near the University of California, Irvine, campus at 10:20 p.m. Tuesday. It was the first midair collision of law enforcement helicopters in Southern California.
Authorities said Wednesday that the crash occurred as the aircraft from the Costa Mesa Police Department was about to hand over the pursuit to a Newport Beach police helicopter.
A preliminary investigation showed that the skid of the smaller Newport Beach helicopter made contact with the main rotor blades of the Costa Mesa aircraft, said Gary Mucho, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Los Angeles office. The Costa Mesa helicopter plunged 500 feet to the ground and exploded. The Newport Beach craft crash-landed about a quarter of a mile away.
Preliminary NTSB findings showed no evidence of mechanical problems with either aircraft.
Costa Mesa officers John William (Mike) Libolt, 39, and James David Ketchum, 39, were killed when their five-seat Hughes 500E turbine helicopter plunged into rolling hills less than 1,000 yards from the university’s faculty and student housing. Libolt and Ketchum, both Costa Mesa residents, were pilots with about 3,000 and 3,500 flight hours respectively.
They were the first Costa Mesa police officers killed in the line of duty.
Authorities identified the third victim as Jeffrey Pollard, 27, of Tustin, a civilian flight instructor who was along as an authorized observer.
Two Newport Beach officers, pilot Robert Oakley, 35, and Myles Elsing, 40, a pilot who was riding the smaller Hughes 300C two-seat helicopter as observer, were hospitalized at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana with what police said were not life-threatening injuries. Oakley was released Wednesday; Elsing remained hospitalized for observation.
William Vincent Acosta, 19, an unemployed Anaheim construction worker, was booked Wednesday on suspicion of murder, possession of stolen property, burglary, evading arrest, vehicle theft and reckless driving with injury. He was being held at Orange County Jail on $250,000 bail. California law permits a murder charge when someone is killed during the commission of another crime, in this case, auto theft.
Police said Wednesday that they like to use helicopters in auto chases to make driving safer for pursuing patrol cars, which can reduce their speed as the aircraft track the target.
“In a pursuit, we will involve a helicopter every time we can, because when you involve a helicopter, you are reducing the threat (to) life or property,” said Newport Police spokesman Kent Stoddard.
Police helicopter crews fly under so-called visual flight rules, requiring them to look out for other aircraft during airborne pursuits. Unlike fixed-wing planes, they are not subject to Federal Aviation Administration regulation.
Libolt, who was divorced, is survived by a daughter, Katie, 15; a son, David, 19, his parents and four sisters. For the last four or five years, Libolt had worked part-time as a model for fashion catalogues and department store ads, according to his agent, Vivienne McIntosh.
Ketchum is survived by his wife, Meg, and daughters Hilary, 13, and Penny, 12.
Meg Ketchum said she was on a break at her job as an AirCal reservations clerk when she learned of the crash on a news broadcast.
“I kept thinking it wouldn’t be David, it would be someone else, and the news didn’t know what was going on,” she said in the living room of her home Wednesday night, surrounded by friends from the police force. “I called Dave (Lt. Dave Brooks, the watch commander) and said ‘Dave, tell me what you know,’ and he told me that there were two dead and one was my husband.”
She said that she knew that if her husband’s helicopter ever did crash, he probably would not walk away from it. But she worried less about him up in the air than when he was on the ground.
“When he used to come home from the detectives’ bureau, he was so stressed out,” she said. “He loved his (helicopter)job.”
Oakley, a pilot with Newport Beach police since March, 1985, and an officer there more than six years, has logged 1,800 hours of flight time. Elsing is a 12-year veteran of the force and has been a pilot since August, 1980. He has logged about 6,000 hours in helicopters, Stoddard said.
Elsing had ridden as an observer in a previous crash landing of a department helicopter in the Irvine Hills, Stoddard said.
Tuesday night’s pursuit began at a Santa Ana police stakeout of an apartment complex where a number of car thefts had occurred, Irvine Police Lt. Mike White said. Santa Ana Police spokeswoman Maureen Thomas said her department, which has no police helicopters, had not requested helicopter assistance from adjacent agencies.
The chase moved on city streets to MacArthur Boulevard, and then to where the cities of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Irvine meet. Pursuing units used an emergency radio frequency commonly known as the red channel. The last word from either of the helicopters was a broadcast from the Costa Mesa craft asking the Newport Beach craft to take over the pursuit, Irvine Police Sgt. Dick Bowman said.
The collision and explosion startled passing motorists.
“I just happened to look over when they hit,” said Ken Bruce, 28, of Corona del Mar, whose car was about 100 yards away. The initial impact “looked like one (helicopter) dropped a flare” then one “dropped straight down and burst into flame. The big explosion came when it hit (the ground).”
Chuck Nibeel, 38, of Newport Beach was driving home from dinner with two companions when he saw “some flashes, like firecrackers or fireworks,” then smoke and flame.
“I saw one of the officers lying by the copter,” Nibeel said. “We could tell he was dead.”
After the collision, Acosta fled north on the Costa Mesa Freeway to the Riverside Freeway. He was unarmed when he was arrested in the area of Anaheim and Elm streets in Anaheim, running from the stolen car, which had blown a front tire.
His brother, Andy Acosta, 18, said Wednesday that he was watching television at the Anaheim home he shares with the suspect, three other siblings and their mother, when at about 10:45 p.m. when he heard sirens. He went outside and saw police helicopters. A couple blocks away, his brother was being arrested.
‘I Feel Bad’
“He made a mistake by stealing that car, but how can they say that he killed them?” Andy Acosta asked. “I feel bad for the family of the people who died, but it wasn’t his fault they crashed. I could understand it if he had a gun or if he had crashed into a cop car, but this was in the air, not on the ground.”
A survivors’ memorial fund has been established for the officers by Costa Mesa Police Lt. George Lorton. Police said services for the Costa Mesa officers will be held at 2 p.m. Friday in Calvary Chapel, 3800 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa.
Times staff writers Steve Emmons, Andy Rose, Nancy Wride, Bob Schwartz, John Spano, Leonel Sanchez and Mark I. Pinsky contributed to this article.