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Drug Operation Suspended After Deaths in Helicopter

Times Staff Writers

A secret drug interdiction operation was temporarily suspended Wednesday, two days after five sheriff’s deputies and three National Guardsmen were killed when their helicopter struck a high wire and crashed in western Imperial County.

Even as they halted Operation Border Ranger, which brought military officers and local law enforcement personnel together to combat the flow of drugs across the border from Mexico, authorities defended it as “innovative.”

They characterized it as a “combat operation” involving heavily armed police “commandos” who would be flown into the desert outreaches of San Diego and Imperial counties to attack drug traffickers and seize their illicit shipments.

The crash occurred 63 miles east of San Diego about 9:30 p.m. Monday--the first night of the previously unpublicized anti-drug program.

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On its initial mission, the UH-1H Huey helicopter clipped a static line strung 20 feet above 500,000-kilowatt power lines while flying through a canyon so the officers could get a closer look at a parked car thought to belong to drug smugglers.

The vehicle turned out to be a Border Patrol car.

Officials said Wednesday that the pilot, National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Geoffrey L. Nett of Corona, and his two Guard crewmen were warned in a pre-flight briefing about the power lines that stretch about 500 feet above the isolated canyon separating the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 8.

Guard spokesman Maj. Steve Mensik also said the crew members were using maps that showed the location of the wires.

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“The crew knew there were power lines in that area,” he said.

Despite the warnings and the crew’s unfamiliarity with the terrain, Mensik said, Nett decided to fly into the canyon with the helicopter’s powerful searchlight turned off so the occupants of the parked car would not be alerted.

“If you are in the combat environment,” Mensik said, “you don’t have a neon sign on the side of your helicopter saying, ‘Hey, bad guys, here I come.’ ”

The Huey hurtled into a boulder-covered hillside. Guardsmen killed in the crash were Nett, 42, of Corona; 2nd Lt. Eric J. Smeltzer, 29, of Rialto, and Sgt. Ramon M. Espinoza, 38, of Westminster.

The five deputies killed were from a consortium of six Southern California sheriffs’ departments that sponsored the interdiction program.

They were Roy A. Chester, 41, of La Verne, and James D. McSweeney, 43, of Huntington Beach, both of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; Sgt. Richard G. Romero, 39, El Centro, of Imperial County; Mark Steven Tonkin, 31, of the Orange County department, and investigator Michael David Davis, 34, of Indio, member of the Riverside County department.

“These guys who gave their lives were pioneers who showed that law enforcement can work with the military,” said Los Angeles County Undersheriff Robert Edmonds, the architect of the program. “I hope their deaths will not be in vain.”

The strategy and goals for the drug interdiction program were described for the first time Wednesday by its participants.

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Edmonds said it was designed to react to intelligence reports of large drug shipments coming through the desert and mountains of the two border counties. The plan uses combat tactics refined in Vietnam to support civilian law enforcement units.

Mensik and Edmonds both emphasized that National Guard personnel in the operation are not armed and are not authorized to make arrests.

The program, said San Diego County Sheriff’s Lt. Pat Kirins, one of two commanders of the unit, has been “suspended temporarily, but it hasn’t been killed.”

He added: “It was an innovative approach. We were hoping to end it on an innovative note to show people who control the purse strings what can be done when law enforcement and the military cooperate in the fight against drugs.”


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