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Border Flight Called ‘Innovative’ : Drug Missions Suspended in Wake of Copter Crash

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 an 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. On its first mission, the UH-1H Huey helicopter clipped a static wire 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.

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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 during a preflight 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. “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.

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“If you are in the combat environment,” said Mensik, “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 sheriff’s 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, a 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.”

Use of Combat Tactics

The strategy and goals for the drug interdiction program were described for the first time Wednesday by its participants. 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 drug interdiction 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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Officers from six Southern California sheriff’s departments as well as National Guard personnel, Border Patrol and U.S. Customs agents all have roles in the plan, which had been discussed among law enforcement officials for the past few years but was mad final at a July 8 meeting in San Diego, said Edmonds. Present at the meeting were the sheriffs from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Imperial counties, their field operations officers and Gen. Robert Thresher of the California National Guard.

At the meeting, the National Guard agreed to provide three helicopters and pilots for the program, Edmonds said, and the sheriffs agreed to commit manpower and resources to San Diego and Imperial counties, where traffickers commonly transport drug shipments through isolated desert and mountain areas.

A Unique Operation

Operation Border Ranger is unique because it calls for narcotics deputies from other counties to be sent to the two border counties, where they would be under the command of San Diego or Imperial County authorities. Because the sheriffs are elected officials, they did not need clearance from their respective boards of supervisors to use deputies and resources in narcotics investigations outside of their counties, Edmonds said.

Officials said that they did not have a cost estimate for the operation, but, because all agencies are utilizing funds and manpower that have already been budgeted, special funding for the drug interdiction program was not required.

“Once they get the resources from the boards, they are free to use them in a way that’s most effective to get the job done. If the sheriffs choose to commit some resources from their own narcotics bureaus to this joint effort, they are free to do so. . . . We are all state peace officers and have authority statewide,” Edmonds said.

Edmonds and other law enforcement officials involved in Operation Ranger repeatedly emphasized Wednesday that the program illustrates the effectiveness of civilian-military cooperation in the fight against drugs.

“I saw the need to try to convince the Department of Defense that the civilian law enforcement community is willing to commit resources if we can get the technical support from the military,” Edmonds said. " . . . We’ll do the law enforcement part if they give us the aircraft, radar, night vision equipment and other resources that we need to stop the drug traffickers.

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“You might ask, Why are deputies from Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties fighting drug traffickers in San Diego and Imperial counties? The answer is simple. It’s easier to fight narcotics trafficking at the point where it enters the United States than to wait until the stuff reaches the streets,” said Edmonds.


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