LA Noir: The Strange Case of the Sheriffs’ Missing Helicopter Engines

Print More

Sea King helicopters. Photo Courtesy Los Angeles County.

 Mike Stille stared grimly at the group of huge cans—metal barrels, really—that his transport guys had recently unloaded inside his Number 2 warehouse located in Peachtree City, GA.  The cans themselves looked normal enough, but Stille did not have an upbeat feeling about what he was going to find inside.

Each can was supposed to contain a Sikorsky helicopter engine, in perfect condition, that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) was required to return to the U.S. Navy.

When he opened the cans, his suspicions were confirmed. There were indeed engines inside—but they did not belong to the fleet of Sea King helicopters loaned to the  LASD by the Navy as surplus equipment over a decade earlier.

Mike Stille. Photo by Celeste Fremon

Stille, president and founder of Clayton International, was the middleman between the LASD and the feds.  His company specializes in the support of Sikorsky H-3 Sea King helicopters, a twin engine, all-weather aircraft originally developed for anti-submarine amphibious warfare that has been flying for the US Navy in one variant or another since 1959.

The Sea King’s ability to stay airborne for three to four hours at a time, along with an exceptional degree of dependability, the fact that it can land on water if need be, and the roominess of the aircraft’s interior—you can actually stand up inside —also made it the ideal aircraft for search and rescue work.

Those same qualities have made the Sikorsky H-3 Sea King the primary aircraft used in the Navy’s Marine One program, the fleet of helicopters that land on the South Lawn of the White House to transport the President of the United States.

Six of these H-3 Sea Kings had been on loan to the LASD for well over a decade, as part of the nation’s Law Enforcement Support Office program (LESO), also known as the 1033 program, which was created by Congress under the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

But  the LASD  was about to get a fleet of newer helicopters, so the  Sea Kings and their supply of extra engines were scheduled to be returned to the government for potential use by Marine One’s training program.

The engines were what Mike Stille was expecting to find in the cans inside Number 2 warehouse.

What he found instead—or, rather, didn’t find—would eventually lead to an investigation that would cast a new cloud over a police agency already unsettled by criminal charges against 21 of its officers, including the sheriff and his top deputy.

‘Culture of Corruption’

In January, the department’s once-powerful former undersheriff Paul Tanaka entered a federal prison in Colorado to begin serving a five-year sentence for conspiracy and obstructing an FBI probe of jail abuses.  His boss, Lee Baca, the four-time elected sheriff, was convicted last year of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and lying to federal officials.

Baca will be sentenced May 12.

On the day of Tanaka’s conviction last April, David Bowdich, then the head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, described the LASD as having a “culture of corruption seen only in the movies.”

Jim McDonnell, a reform-minded lawman from outside the department, was sworn in as the new sheriff in December 2014.  Yet a toxic culture does not change easily, and many department members, working and retired, have expressed concern that prominent examples of that toxic culture have neither been entirely rooted out, nor held to answer.

For many of those critics, the story of what happened to the LASD’s Sea King engines is exhibit A.

Witness LA pieced together that story after a lengthy investigation, from sources both inside and outside the department. It begins with a federal program aimed at helping law enforcement agencies around the country leverage their limited resources with de-commissioned military hardware from the Department of Defense.

It involves an elite LASD unit known as Aero Bureau, and ends with a federal investigation that was closed without any criminal charges.

But it continues to raise questions about a department that allowed its public safety mission, and the good work of its decent cops, to repeatedly be undermined by the arrogance and corruption of a few senior executives.

Section 1033

 Section 1033 of the NDAA authorized the transfer—temporary or permanent, depending upon the item—of a wide variety of excess property owned by the Department of Defense to federal and state law enforcement agencies.  The idea of 1033 (which replaced the earlier, more limited 1208 program) was that local budgets were tight and cops could make good use of freebees that the feds no longer needed.

The excess military items given to law enforcement agencies have become a controversial topic in recent years.

Photos of police agencies around the nation using mine-resistant, and ambush-proof vehicles—MRAPs—in protest demonstrations , or to conduct drug raids, triggered a debate about the “militarization” of American policing. In 2015, the Obama administration severely curtailed the program in the aftermath of the publicity surrounding their use in the Ferguson, Missouri protests; the Trump administration has signaled its support for reviving it.

Yet for all of the high-profile abuse of the program, most of the excess military equipment that has been acquired by law enforcement organizations is both useful and appropriate.

In some cases, the gear obtained by cash-strapped police and sheriff’s agencies is used for purposes that have little to do with crime fighting.  For instance, when the city of Nashville flooded in 2010, nine 15-foot Zodiac inflatable rafts procured by the Nashville cops through the 1033 program helped the NPD to rescue nearly 500 people from rising flood water.

Aero  Bureau

Like most large police agencies, the LA County Sheriff’s Department uses various aircraft as part of its policing and other operations.

Aero Bureau is an elite unit inside the LASD that oversees the department’s aircraft—mostly helicopters.  The bureau has a fleet of 14 single engine light helicopters, Eurocopter AStars, which are used primarily to support the department’s patrol units in their day-to-day law enforcement efforts throughout Los Angeles County.

In addition, Aero has a few-fixed wing aircraft, and a second fleet of helicopters that are operated by specially trained Air Rescue 5 pilots, staffed by the department’s Emergency Service Detail, with deputies who are both paramedics, and trained in handling high-risk tactical situations—in other words, SWAT training.

 The Air 5 helicopter fleet is made up of the sturdier search-and-rescue aircraft we often see on the evening news performing dramatic backcountry life-saving missions, fishing stranded hikers off of ledges, and occasionally inserting SWAT teams into situations where their presence is needed on an emergency basis.

By 1996,  the department’s search and rescue activities had become increasingly demanding, so Aero Bureau started looking around for a larger and more versatile replacement for its aging aircraft.  The Sikorsky H-3 Sea Kings were the logical choice.

Initially, however, the copters were unavailable under the government’s LESO program. The Navy aircraft were labeled as “excess” items—which meant that even though they were no longer being used for any federal mission, they might still be useful someday. But the Air 5 personnel had a long-shot idea: what if some of the excess H-3s could be re-labeled as surplus?

“We were told it couldn’t be done, “ said retired Air Rescue 5 Crew Chief Dave Rathbun, who was on the search committee.  But thanks to the intervention of California’s senior senator Diane Feinstein, four Sea Kings were redesignated surplus by Navy brass.  “She made it all happen in a matter of a few months,” said Rathbun.“

 And so it was that in July 1997, the LASD was given the zero-cost loan of four SH-3 Sea Kings from the U.S. Navy.  Eventually there would be a total of six aircraft, plus eight older model engines that could be raided for parts.

LASD Gets a Consultant

With the acquisition of the Sea Kings, the LASD also contracted  the services of one of the country’s leading experts on the aircraft: Mike Stille.  Starting in  December, 1997, he served as their consultant and all-round Sea-King guru.

“I didn’t know of anyone with his kind of expertise with the H-3s,” said retired Aero Bureau captain Jim Di Giovanna.

The acquisition paid off for the citizens of Los Angeles County.

“Hundreds of lives were saved over the years we worked with the department because of the Air 5 aircraft,” said Stille.  “And for a long time, we felt a part of that.”

But nothing lasts forever.  When Captain Di Giovanna retired from the department in 2006 after 35 years on the job—17 of them in the aviation unit—he was succeeded by a non-pilot captain, who lasted only two years and made very few changes to Aero Bureau..

Then in 2008, Louis Duran took over as head of the place, and things changed a lot.

Duran reportedly had acquired a sponsor and protector who wielded more power in the department than anyone but possibly then-Sheriff Lee Baca.  That sponsor was Paul Tanaka—who was, according to many, the shadow sheriff who really ran the show, with Baca as the front man.

Once in charge at Aero Bureau, according to sources then working in the unit, Duran quickly became a polarizing character who, like his protector, surrounded himself with a coterie of favorites to whom he reportedly dispensed lucrative favors, such as tens of thousands of dollars worth of overtime a year, during the post-2008 budget crunch when overtime was all but nonexistent throughout the department.

“With Louie, everything’s all about loyalty” One LASD pilot told Witness LA. “When you first come to Aero Bureau he actually gives you a loyalty lecture, and he’ll ask, ‘Are you loyal to me? Are you loyal to me?’ And you want to say, ‘Dude. I’m loyal to the bureau, but I don’t want to swear loyalty to some guy, even if you are the captain.’

Paul Tanaka. Photo by Celeste Fremon.

“But you can’t say that, of course.”

A little over a year after he arrived, Duran set out to replace every helicopter in the LASD’s possession.  First, in 2010, the LASD persuaded the LA County Board of Supervisors to approve $56.7 million for the purchase of a dozen Eurocopter AStars for patrol duty. Then, in 2011, Duran, lobbied to dump the Sea Kings, which he’d reportedly never like anyway, in favor of three smaller but newer Super Pumas.

Factions and favoritism can be a problem in any organization, but shortly after the purchase of the AStars, complaints about Duran’s supposedly Tanaka-protected rule continued to worsen, and allegations of various kinds of wrongdoing began to surface.

Some of the allegations were small in scale, like the alleged manipulation of overtime to favor some people over others. Others were more serious. A former Aero Bureau pilot, Sergeant Richard Gurr, now retired, alleged in a 10-page report that the $29 million Board of Supervisors-approved contract to do completion work on the LASD’s 12 new AStar helicopters, was loaded with massive labor overcharges and the purchase of a startling amount of unnecessary equipment to the tune of upwards of $11 million.

Gurr also alleged, in painstaking detail, that Duran and a small group of supervisors who worked under him colluded to rig the bidding process, for the reportedly overcharging vendor.

In any case, Duran got the okay to purchase the Eurocopter Super Pumas, and Aero Bureau contacted the federal government, as required, to say that they would no longer be using the Sea Kings.

“They had to go to the Defense Department and say ‘What do you want us to do with these aircraft and surplus engines?,’ Stille explained.  “The feds said, ‘We want them all back.’”

In general, LESO rules required that any equipment that might have a military use had to be returned to the government once the local agency was no longer using it.

Misusing or not returning a required item could result in the entire police agency getting shut out of the program.

According to Rathbun and DiGiovanna, in the case of the Sea Kings, the mandate to return the planes and the engines was far more stringent.

 “Remember, they were not really unneeded surplus items,” said Rathbun. “The feds were still actively operating the aircraft. “

 Thus, when Aero Bureau contacted the federal Law Enforcement Support Office, LESO contacted the Navy, who alerted the people from Marine One, who called LESO to say that, yes, they’d be taking the aircraft and the engines back for their own purposes.

To accomplish the return, the U.S. Navy logically hired Stille.

The Navy was not at all casual about reacquiring the equipment they’d loaned to the LA County Sheriffs, said Stille. “The Navy sent people out to LA to inspect the H-3s and the engines. They went out there twice.”  In other words, he said, “they knew what they were getting.”

 Returning the Sea Kings

The transfer of the H-3s and engines to the Navy via Stille began in December 2011. At first, the returns proceeded smoothly, if slowly, as Aero Bureau made gradual changeover to the Super Pumas.

By the end of February 2012, Stille’s people had picked up two helicopters, and then in the third shipment, they picked up part of the cache of extra engines for the H-3s, he’d gotten for the LASD from the Navy some years before.   There were a few problems.

When the department sent the two aircraft, they were both devoid of engines.

Some additional large pricy components were also missing from each of the helicopter shipments:  a tail rotor gearbox, and some main rotor gearboxes that, except for the engines, were the most important—and most expensive—parts of the aircraft.

When Stille emailed Dennis Thompson, who was chief of helicopter maintenance at Aero Bureau, Thompson told Stille that they had sent everything they had save the helicopters, engines and equipment they were actually using until they got their new fleet of Super Pumas up and running.  Plus there was one engine that Thompson said had been junked.

Stille took Thompson at his word.

By January 2013, all but one helicopter had been turned in, and the remaining engines still needed to be picked up. When Stille checked with Thompson about the outstanding returns, Thompson listed a few items that Aero Bureau didn’t intend to give back to the Navy as the department had bought them, and thought they should be able to keep them.

“The list included a hoist, some special radios, and other things of that nature,” Stille said.

Stille told Thompson that keeping those LASD-purchased items was fine, that the Navy would not object.  Moreover, if Aero Bureau no longer needed those parts bought specifically for the H-3 fleet, Stille said that his company would be interested in buying them.

He offered Thompson $250,000 on the spot.  Dennis said that he would check with his bosses.

A month later, Stille stopped by Aero Bureau’s Long Beach, CA, headquarters on his way to another event.   He wanted to check on the items still remaining to be picked up.  He also reiterated his interest in the surplus parts.  But when Stille arrived on site, chief mechanic Thompson said, that someone else was also planning to make an offer on the extra Sea King equipment. A mechanic named Alan Butler, walked him around the various areas where the less used parts were generally stored.

 Butler, however, was not high up on the Aero Bureau food chain, and mistakenly showed Stille more than the spare parts in question.  He also showed him four engines, the labels for which indicated that they were in pristine shape.

When he saw the engines, Stille started to have an uncomfortable feeling.   On instinct,  he took photos of the engine canisters and their identification papers.

When Stille next talked to Aero Bureau, he learned that the other interested party had bid $400K.

 Stille countered.  “I told them, I’d up my bid to $500,000. “

 Aero Bureau came back a week or two later, and said they were sorry, but someone had now offered them $600,000.

 This news of the $600,000 bid caused Stille’s discomfort to ratchet up considerably.   His bid had already been high.  But $600,000 was way too much for the spare parts that the sheriffs’ department was ostensibly selling.  Stille wondered if the Aero people were also selling some of those nice, perfectly overhauled Sikorsky engines he’d seen in February, that he would soon pick up to return to the Marine One program.

“It occurred to me that they were out to short the Navy and sell of some of those engines for cash.”

 Stille hoped he was wrong.

Eventually he decided to make a call that might dispel his fears.

The Sea King world is a small one where everyone knows everyone else, said Dave Rathbun.  As a consequence, it was an easy mental jump for Stille to guess that the other bidder might be a man named Jeremy Brown who, at the time, ran a company called Rotor Maxx up in British Columbia, Canada, which had done some work for the LA Sheriffs’ Department.

 “Jeremy and I go way back,” said Stille.  “In fact I was the one who introduced Rotor Maxx to the LASD years ago.”

Stille figured that if Brown outbid him on the old parts, no big deal.  Business is business.   But if Brown and Rotor Maxx were also bidding on those like-new engines that were scheduled to be returned to the Marine One program, that was another matter entirely.

Among other things, it put Stille in a peculiar position. It was his job to get all the listed equipment back to the Navy.

In mid-March, Stille decided to call Jeremy Brown to fish around a little.

I said, ‘Look, if it’s you bidding on those parts, fine.’” But if was somebody else, and engines were part of the bid, “you need to tell them that what they’re buying is federal property and eventually they’re going to end up with some FBI agents on their dock, asking for their property back.”

The warning turned out to be prescient.

Stille would learn later that, some time after he and Brown ended their call, Roto Maxx’s Brown had called Aero Bureau, and recounted his conversation with Stille with some added negative spin.

As an apparent consequence of Brown’s call, late in the day on March 13, Stille got an email from LASD Sgt. Casey Dowling, stating that Stille was banned from Aero Bureau.

 “….Effective immediately,” the email read, “you and or your employees are not allowed on our facility until further notice…. In addition I am ordering all Aero Bureau employees not to speak to you for any reason. If you have questions or concerns or wish to communicate with my staff, send me an email and I will respond accordingly.  I am now the point of contact on this operation.”

The Navy tersely replied that was a non-starter.  Meanwhile, Stille went on with business as usual.  He didn’t come to LA himself. But he sent his people to pick up the remaining aircraft, as originally planned, and after that, one more batch of engines.

Clayton’s transport trucks made the last pick up from Aero Bureau on Thursday, June 13, 2013.  By the third week in June, Stille had all of the six aircraft, plus that additional shipment of six engines, all of the engines safely packed in their large canisters.

Stille was relieved to discover that the aircraft were fine.

The engines, however, were not.

[To Be Continued]

The Crime Report is pleased to co-publish this story with Witness LA.  This is a condensed and slightly edited version of  Part 1 of this series, published today.  The full version of Part 1 can be read here.  TCR will post the final parts later this week.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *