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8 Die in Copter Crash During Hunt for Drugs : 5 Deputies, 3 Guardsmen Killed as Craft Hits Power Line During Secret Mission Near Border

Times Staff Writers

Five Southern California sheriff’s deputies and three National Guard fliers were killed Monday night when a helicopter on a secret anti-drug mission crashed into a mountainside after hitting a power line.

The accident occurred about 9:30 p.m., 63 miles east of San Diego in Imperial County when the National Guard UH-1H helicopter, on its maiden nighttime surveillance flight under a program called Operation Border Ranger, tried to pass through an isolated canyon to close in on a parked car thought to belong to drug smugglers, a National Guard spokesman said Tuesday.

Instead, the helicopter clipped a static cable above a 500,000 kilowatt power line and plunged 500 feet into a desert hillside, where it exploded and burned in a fire so intense that the metal fuselage melted.

The car under scrutiny turned out to be a Border Patrol vehicle parked in the canyon, law enforcement officials confirmed Tuesday.

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The crash came on a night of perfect weather on which the terrain was well-lighted by a full moon and while two of the fliers were wearing night-vision goggles, according to National Guard spokesmen in Washington and Sacramento.

Hovering Over Canyon

The UH-1H Huey helicopter was hovering over a canyon that straddles a separation of the east- and westbound lanes of Interstate 8, about 33 miles west of El Centro. The canyon is divided by a 500,000 kilowatt San Diego Gas & Electric power line suspended between two hilltops. The hillsides are covered with huge boulders, each weighing several tons.

Also in the air was a second National Guard helicopter, a Bell Ranger, on loan for the secret anti-drug smuggling operation.

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Monday was the first day that sheriff’s deputies and the guard had employed the helicopters. On Sunday, the guard sent three helicopters and 26 guardsmen to Imperial County for a one-week mission as part of Operation Border Ranger.

Imperial County Sheriff’s Lt. Kenneth Koon said helicopter maneuvers during daylight Monday were performed without incident.

“We were working along the border all day,” said Koon, adding that 20 agents were stationed at points from Yuma to San Diego County. “This was the very first day of our training program.”

According to Maj. Steve Mensik, a California National Guard spokesman, the flights Monday were a “learning experience for everybody. We were doing a real mission and learning at the same time.”

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Koon said, “The training program was kind of a shakedown. We were trying to learn from any mistakes that we would catch during the training program,”

At about 9:30 p.m. Monday, both aircraft spotted a car in the canyon and, after a brief radio discussion between the two, the agents in the UH-1H decided to make a pass through the canyon to see if the vehicle belonged to a drug smuggler, according to Mensik.

As the Bell Ranger flew to about 4,000 feet to provide cover, the UH-1H dipped down to about 500 feet, where it clipped the static cable, plunged to the ground and was consumed in flames, Mensik said.

Border Patrol Vehicle

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Mensik also confirmed that the car on the ground belonged to the Border Patrol, which was monitoring the canyon because it is heavily traversed by illegal aliens. The Border Patrol had been apprised of the maiden nighttime drug interdiction flight, but the car in the canyon had no radio contact with the agents in the air.

Border Patrol agents were the first to report the crash. Firefighters from Ocotillo Wells rushed to the scene but were forced to wait before removing the bodies because they could not control the fire that burned so hot it melted the magnesium-and-aluminum helicopter fuselage.

The bodies were removed at about 2 a.m. Tuesday, when the crash zone had cooled, and the only signs of the crash left later in the day were blackened soot on six or seven of the boulders. The only recognizable part of the wreckage was part of the helicopter’s rotor blade.

Killed in the crash were five deputies from a consortium of six Southern California sheriff’s departments that sponsored the training flight as part of Operation Border Ranger, an anti-drug smuggling program quietly organized earlier this year. They were Roy A. Chester, 41, and James D. McSweeney, 43, both 12-year narcotics squad veterans from Los Angeles County; Sgt. Richard G. Romero, 39, a 14-year veteran from Imperial County; Mark Steven Tonkin, 31, a 7-year veteran from Orange County; and investigator Michael David Davis, 34, of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. San Diego and San Bernardino counties had no one on board.

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Romero, who was in the same 1966 Calexico High School graduating class as slain DEA Agent Enrique Camarena, was not scheduled to be on Monday’s flight, Koon said.

But Romero pulled rank and bumped another Imperial County sheriff’s deputy to get a seat on the ill-fated training mission, he said.

The three National Guardsmen killed in the crash were identified as Chief Warrant Officer Geoffrey L. Nett, 42, of Corona; 2nd Lt. Eric J. Smeltzer, 29, of Rialto, and Sgt. Ramon M. Espinoza, 38, of Westminster. All three were assigned to the 140th Aviation unit at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center.

Quiet About Crash

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Law enforcement agents were tight-lipped Tuesday about much of Operation Border Ranger, which they acknowledged had been kept under wraps. The program began earlier this year when officials from the Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, Imperial, San Diego and San Bernardino sheriff’s departments met at a law enforcement conference and discussed ways to interdict the flow of narcotics. Their strategy concentrated on pinching off the drug flow by intercepting smugglers coming in from Mexico in rural stretches of San Diego and Imperial counties.

The operation eventually expanded to include 70 law enforcement officials from the counties and 20 other federal and state agencies.

“This operation is the first joint venture of its kind,” Koon said. “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.

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“We didn’t want to advertise this whole mission,” said Mensik. “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 law enforcement agencies appealed to the National Guard for equipment and crews, which have been supplying backup nationwide to local drug enforcement officials since 1977. The request was honored by the guard, which last year helped perform 376 drug interdiction missions in 25 states.

The guard started anti-drug-smuggling operations in 1983 in California, one of which resulted in the seizure of 1,472 pounds of cocaine in Los Angeles. Monday’s flights were the guard’s 36th anti-drug mission in the state.

Case-by-Case Basis

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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 support to drug-interdiction efforts.

“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.”

Monday’s crash was the first fatal incident nationwide during 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.

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Koon of Imperial County said Operation Border Ranger on Tuesday was temporarily suspended. “That doesn’t mean we’re through with it,” he said.

The crash comes at a time when the California National Guard has proposed a greatly expanded role for itself in drug-interdiction effort along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Just last week, the guard outlined plans for the 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 accident should not affect those plans. In fact, Col. Kludt, in charge of emergency operations for the California guard, said that Monday’s accident might have been avoided if the more sophisticated aircraft had been available.

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“If we had the Apache helicopters, we could have done the surveillance from a safer altitude,” said Col Kludt.

Used in Vietnam

The UH-1H has 11 seats in back and two in front for pilot and co-pilot. It was used extensively in Vietnam. National Guard spokesmen said Tuesday that no special training has been required for their pilots for the recent anti-drug sweeps, since the interdiction excursions are consider to be comparable to military operations.

A three-man team was dispatched from the Army Safety Center at Ft. Rucker, Ala., on Tuesday to head up the investigation into the crash, said Army Lt. Col. Herbert Blanks. The team will be supplemented with technical experts, both military and civilian, as needed, said Blanks.

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Contributing to the story were Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell in San Diego, Eric Malnic and Steven Braun in Los Angeles, and George Frank and Mariann Hansen in Orange County.


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