Five sheriff’s deputies from Southern California and three National Guardsmen were killed when the helicopter they were flying in a joint drug interdiction mission snagged on a power line and exploded into a hillside in western Imperial County, authorities said Tuesday.
The accident occurred about 9:30 p.m. Monday 63 miles east of San Diego on what was described as a training flight on the first night of an unpublicized anti-drug surveillance program called Operation Border Ranger. The National Guard UH-1H Huey helicopter crashed when it tried to make a pass through an isolated canyon to close in on a parked car thought to belong to drug smugglers, a National Guard spokesman said Tuesday.
The helicopter clipped a static line suspended above a 500,000-kilowatt power line about 500 feet above the ground and hurtled into a desert hillside. The resulting fire was so intense that the fuselage melted over the rocks. The parked car that prompted the maneuver turned out to be a Border Patrol vehicle on routine patrol in the area, which is heavily traversed by illegal aliens, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
Killed in the crash were five deputies from a consortium of six Southern California sheriff’s departments that sponsored Operation Border Ranger, an anti-drug-smuggling program that was quietly organized earlier this year. The three dead guardsmen were stationed with the 140th Aviation unit at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center in Orange County.
The crash came on a night of perfect weather conditions--the terrain was well lit by a full moon--and two of the crew were wearing night vision goggles, said National Guard spokesmen in Washington and Sacramento.
The helicopter was hovering over a canyon that separates the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 8 about 33 miles west of El Centro. The canyon is bisected by the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. power line and its sides are covered with huge boulders, each weighing several tons.
Also in the air was a second National Guard helicopter, a Bell OH-58 Kiowa also on loan for the weeklong program.
Monday was the first day that sheriff’s deputies and the guard had employed the helicopters in the effort, and their maneuvers during the day were performed without incident, Imperial County Sheriff’s Lt. Kenneth Koon said.
In all, the guard sent three helicopters and 27 personnel to Imperial County, officials said.
“We were working along the border all day,” Koon said. “This was the very first day of our training program.”
According to California National Guard spokesman Maj. Steve Mensik, the flights Monday were a “learning experience for everybody. We were doing a real mission and learning at the same time.”
“The training program was kind of a shakedown,” Koon said. “We were trying to learn from any mistakes that we would catch during the training program.”
The program was temporarily suspended Tuesday after the crash, Koon said.
Both aircraft spotted a car in the canyon and, after a brief radio discussion, the agents in the UH-1H decided to descend for a closer look, according to Mensik.
Mensik also confirmed that the car on the ground belonged to the Border Patrol, which had been apprised of the maiden drug interdiction flight but had no radio contact with the agents in the air.
Border Patrol agents were the first to report the crash, and firefighters from Ocotillo Wells who rushed to the scene were forced to wait several hours to remove the bodies because they could not control the fire.
The only signs of the crash left later in the day were blackened grit on six or seven of the boulders. The only recognizable part of the wreckage was a portion of the helicopter’s rotor blade.
The dead deputies were identified as Roy A. Chester, 41, of La Verne, and James D. McSweeney, 43, of Huntington Beach, both 12-year Los Angeles County sheriff’s veterans; Sgt. Richard G. Romero, 39, El Centro, a 14-year veteran in Imperial County; Mark Steven Tonkin, 31, Chino, a seven-year member of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and investigator Michael David Davis, 34, Indio, a nine-year veteran Riverside County deputy. San Diego and San Bernardino county sheriff’s departments, the other participants in the program, had no one on board.
The National Guardsmen were identified as Chief Warrant Officer Geoffrey L. Nett, 42, of Corona; 2nd Lt. Eric J. Smeltzer, 29, Rialto, and Sgt. Ramon M. Espinoza, 38, Westminster.
Law enforcement agents on Tuesday were reluctant to talk about Operation Border Ranger, which they acknowledged had been kept secret. The program was initiated earlier this year when officials from the sheriff’s departments met at a law enforcement conference and discussed ways to interrupt the flow of narcotics. They agreed to combine their efforts and try to pinch the flow of narcotics by heading off smugglers in rural Imperial and San Diego counties.
The departments joined forces and began planning the operation, which eventually included 70 law enforcement officials from the counties and 20 other federal and state agencies.
“This operation is the first joint venture of its kind,” said Koon of Imperial County. “We are all working as a team in stemming the flow of narcotics.”
The program, however, was not widely known outside of the law enforcement community.
“We didn’t want to advertise this whole mission,” Mensik said. “I’m sure that the people who are smuggling drugs can read the newspapers and watch television as well as anyone else.”
Part of the program was aviation surveillance, and the departments appealed to the National Guard for equipment and crews. The guard began supplying backup support to local drug enforcement officials throughout the nation in 1977. The request was honored by the guard, which last year helped perform 376 drug interdiction missions in 25 states.
The National Guard Bureau in Washington, with overall responsibility for the state guard units, approves such requests on a case-by-case basis, a spokesman said, adding that the California border operation had been granted approval earlier this month.
Despite the mishap, guard officials said they would continue to provide such support.
“I think that our pilots and our aircraft are a hell of a lot safer than anyone else’s,” said Col. Ronald A. Kludt, in charge of the California National Guard’s emergency plans and operations in Sacramento. “As far as supporting an operation like this one again, I have no trepidation.”
Army Lt. Col. Herbert Blanks said Tuesday that a three-man team had been dispatched from Army Safety Center at Ft. Rucker, Ala., to investigate the crash. Blanks said the team--which includes an aviation accident specialist, a recorder and an officer in charge--would be supplemented with technical experts, both military and civilian, as needed.
Monday’s crash was the first fatal incident involving guard units involved in an anti-drug-smuggling operation since May, 1987, when two Georgia National Guardsmen were killed in the crash of an OV-1 Mohawk in support of a Coast Guard operation.
The crash comes at a time when the California National Guard has proposed a greatly expanded role for itself in drug interdiction along the border.
Last week, the guard outlined plans for deployment of almost three dozen military helicopters and other aircraft at Brown Field in southern San Diego County. The aircraft--including sophisticated Apache AH-64A attack helicopters equipped with night vision devices--would be used to support drug-fighting activities by federal, state and local law enforcement authorities. Pentagon and congressional approval is needed before the plan can proceed.
Guard officials said Monday’s mishap should not affect those plans. In fact, Col. Kludt stated that availability of the more sophisticated aircraft might have averted Monday’s crash.
“If we had the Apache helicopters, we could have done (Monday’s) surveillance from a safer altitude,” Kludt said.
The deputies who died were all experienced narcotics officers.
Chester, who is survived by his wife, Marilyn, a 19-year-old daughter and twin 17-year-old sons, joined the narcotics detail in March, 1984, and received numerous citations and commendations.
McSweeney, divorced and with no children, was once shot in the arm and chest while apprehending an armed narcotics suspect.
Davis was awarded the Medal of Valor in 1987 for the rescue of a fellow officer from a brush fire. He is survived by his wife, Sandy, and four children, ranging in age from 9 to 17.
Romero was in the same 1966 Calexico High School graduating class as slain Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique Camarena.
“At the baccalaureate they said some of you in the crowd will probably go places, some will die, some will end up going crazy. . . . It has come to pass,” said Tony Ramos, a member of the same class and now a deputy Imperial County probation officer.
Romero, a 14-year veteran, was not scheduled to be on Monday’s flight but pulled rank and bumped another deputy to get a seat on the ill-fated training mission, Koon said.
Romero is survived by three children. His marital status was unknown late Tuesday.
Tonkin is survived by his wife, who lives in Hollywood, and his parents, who live in Whittier.
H.G. Reza reported from Ocotillo and Ralph Frammolino reported from San Diego. Contributing to the story were Times staff writers Patrick McDonnell in San Diego, Eric Malnic and Steven Braun in Los Angeles, Louis Sahagun in Riverside and George Frank and Mariann Hansen in Orange County.