Hours before officer died, police warned about problems with helicopter unit

After a series of close calls with its helicopters, the Metropolitan Police Department’s top brass ordered an audit last year with the hope of uncovering the problems plaguing the air support section.

But seven months into the review, the same officials who ordered the quality assurance audit abruptly pulled the plug on the investigation.

Frustrated by the decision, one of the officers tasked with the assignment sent an email in July to Undersheriff Jim Dixon and several other high-ranking officers.

Lt. Gawain Guedry noted his concerns about “decades-long issues” that persisted in the air unit and disagreed with their decision to halt the investigation after so much time and resources had been invested.

“None of us agrees with the early termination of our assessment, but we accept it; however, we believe you and the Sheriff have some tough decisions to make,” Guedry wrote in the email, which was obtained Friday by the Review-Journal.

Guedry also gave a warning.

“Our agency has been incredibly lucky thus far, in terms of not losing a single life to an aviation accident. That luck may not continue.”

His email was sent at 4 p.m. on July 22, hours before search and rescue officer David VanBuskirk died after falling from a helicopter during a rescue mission on Mount Charleston.

While the timing of his email was coincidental, there were at least two recent incidents with police helicopters that nearly resulted in tragedy.

In May 2012, a rescue helicopter clipped a Red Rock Canyon wall with its rotor blade during a training mission. And in October, a $1 million helicopter was totaled in a “hard landing” during another training accident at the North Las Vegas Airport.

No one was killed or severely injured in either case, but they prompted the department to order a comprehensive review .

Guedry, a former police helicopter pilot, teamed with officers with the department’s Critical Incident Review Team, which typically reviews officer-involved shootings.

It was a “monster of a task,” Guedry said in the email. “None of us on this team asked to conduct this assessment; we were directed to do so.”

Guedry didn’t respond to calls or emails for comment. Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he hasn’t reviewed the report, but he acknowledged Dixon and Assistant Sheriff Joseph Lombardo received it last month.

Gillespie said he wasn’t aware Guedry’s investigation had been cut short.

“From what I understand, the report was completed, and it contains a number of recommendations of which I believe we’ll follow through on,” he said.

The department is not releasing the internal report, which it contends isn’t a public document. Gillespie said he wasn’t sure whether the report would be released.

Guedry’s email hinted that the report’s conclusions might not be well-received.

“None of us created any of the facts contained within the report,” he wrote. “We simply relayed them to you.”

It wasn’t clear why the investigation was cut short, but several law enforcement officials with knowledge of the situation said “internal politics” played a role. The investigation wasn’t reinstated in the wake of VanBuskirk’s death, and it’s unclear how seriously the department considered the team’s findings.

Guedry, who sent the email just before he went on vacation, seemed unsure of his superiors’ intentions.

“My feeling is you will want to talk to us again after you read the report. Our findings are not easily implemented — meaning there is no simple steps to make them happen. A lot depends on the level of commitment you and the Sheriff are willing to provide.

“If you do want to talk to us after you review the report, I ask that you wait until I return from vacation before making any final decisions on how you want to proceed with Air Support,” he wrote.

Gillespie said he didn’t think anything in the report would have affected VanBuskirk’s accident. Lombardo and Deputy Chief Marc Joseph were being periodically briefed on the team’s findings and would have implemented critical changes, he said.

“If situations were brought to attention in regards to something that needed to be done right now, those things would have been done,” he said. “David’s situation was a bit different. But then again, we’re looking at all factors associated with it. I don’t want to lose one officer, and I definitely don’t want to lose another officer.”

A meeting was scheduled next week for Joseph, Lombardo and Capt. Charles Hank to discuss Guedry’s report.

Joseph said the air unit is an important part of fighting crime and helping people in Las Vegas, although it’s not perfect. But the department is working toward getting the unit to the standards of best practices.

“This review will get us in that right direction and take us toward that level,” he said.

“Some things will take time, some we’ll be implementing in the very near future.”

Criticism of the air unit hasn’t slowed since VanBuskirk’s death, which is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Police opened an internal investigation earlier this month after DJ Ashba, lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, was given a private helicopter tour for his wedding proposal to his girlfriend.

If VanBuskirk’s death and Guedry’s report didn’t have an impact, Ashba’s helicopter ride did.

Capt. David O’Leary, who oversees the Financial Crimes Bureau, arranged the ride. O’Leary, who has nearly 25 years of experience at the department, could retire because of the investigation.

Air Support Lt. Tom Monahan, who formerly oversaw the homicide section and the counterterrorism center, will soon be transferred to another section.

Some officers felt Monahan was being unfairly treated as a scapegoat for a section that has suffered from a “cowboy mentality” for decades.

Gillespie and his staff “know about the problems with Air Support,” said one police source, who asked not to be identified. “I’m not sure what they plan to do about it.”