A Las Vegas police officer tasked with improving Metro’s troubled aviation unit has taken the unprecedented step of asking prosecutors to determine whether his bosses broke the law when they buried his report.
Lt. Gawain Guedry and a union lawyer recently met with Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson to ask for the probe, the Review-Journal has learned. Guedry is seeking whistleblower status under a Nevada law designed to protect peace officers who report “improper governmental action” by their employers.
Metro had promised transparency and accountability after a series of mishaps rocked the embattled air support unit in the past two years. In addition to a pair of near-fatal helicopter crashes in 2012 — which prompted Guedry’s internal investigation — the unit also saw one officer die in an accident and several others punished after a ride-along scandal last year.
Wolfson said this week that prosecutors are reviewing the lieutenant’s claim, but he couldn’t make further comment. If Wolfson agrees with Guedry, the law says he could prosecute the department.
Metro, for its part, says no report was buried and no law was broken.
Undersheriff Jim Dixon, who in 2012 asked Guedry to investigate the air unit’s problems, said Guedry never specified what law Metro allegedly broke.
“It’s one thing to say we violated something. But tell us what we supposedly violated,” Dixon said. “This is an issue for the DA’s office. We will not involve ourselves in it. I will certainly not involve myself in it.”
Several longtime police officials said they’ve never seen an officer take a complaint about a management decision to the District Attorney under this law, which prohibits Metro from retaliating against Guedry for reporting the alleged violation.
Guedry hasn’t clarified his position. He and Lt. John Faulis, who heads Guedry’s union, both declined comment. But within the agency Guedry has been vocal about his frustrations with his bosses’ handling of his investigation.
Dixon said he hasn’t spoken to Guedry about his issues.
“Never had a conversation with him. This was handled through the chain of command,” he said.
But Guedry has personally voiced his opinion to Dixon before. His frustrations were revealed last year after an email to Dixon and other high-ranking officers was obtained by the Review-Journal.
Guedry, a former police pilot, and two other officers had been tasked with auditing the air unit after a pair of helicopter accidents.
In May 2012, a rescue helicopter clipped a Red Rock Canyon wall with its rotor blade during a training mission, millimeters away from seven officers. And in September 2012, a $1 million helicopter was totaled after a crash during another training accident at the North Las Vegas Airport. Two pilots received minor injuries when the helicopter rolled over.
Guedry’s team determined the unit, which has more than a dozen pilots, about a half-dozen helicopters and one small plane, had issues that were “decades-long” and integrated in its culture.
But seven months into his review, Guedry claimed the administration abruptly pulled the plug on his team’s investigation.
The original report, more than 100 pages, has never been made public.
Instead, several weeks ago Metro’s Office of Internal Oversight quietly released an eight-page progress report for the unit, listing 70 training, safety, operations and personnel recommendations, using some of Guedry’s suggestions but without his narrative or analysis.
Dixon said the Office of Internal Oversight finished the report because Guedry’s was unusable.
Guedry’s report “had a lot of personality issues in it. It could not be released, as far as I was concerned,” Dixon said.
Metro didn’t need a report filled with finger-pointing, Dixon said. He simply wanted a fact-finding investigation detailing what wasn’t working in the unit.
“We took the 70 recommendations” and that’s what Metro put online, Dixon said.
Guedry’s original narrative was more of a rough draft than a final report and is not a public record, Dixon said.
It’s unclear how the courts would interpret Metro’s stance. According to the ACLU of Nevada, Metro must show “a preponderance of evidence” that a record is not public.
Dixon said he makes “that decision on whether it’s something I want to release. I think at that point (Guedry) got upset.”
SOME CHANGES MADE
Despite the controversy, Metro has moved forward in revamping the air unit.
Many of the report’s recommendations have already been implemented, such as creating a safety officer position and updating training and operational procedures. Other recommendations — such as installing recording equipment in helicopters — were not finished, Dixon said.
“I believe we put the right protocols in place to keep (accidents) from happening,” he said.
Guedry’s original report hasn’t been viewed by many people, according to several officers, but was apparently critical of the unit’s past leadership and oversight.
Guedry hinted in his email to Dixon that his findings might be unpopular.
“None of us created any of the facts contained within the report,” he wrote. “We simply relayed them to you.”
Things got worse for Metro’s air unit after Guedry’s investigation ended. Coincidentally, tragedy struck just hours after he sent the email to his superiors.
“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,” Guedry wrote in the email sent at 4 p.m. on July 22. Just hours later, search and rescue officer David VanBuskirk died after falling from a helicopter during a rescue mission on Mount Charleston. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration continue to investigate his death.
Police said the circumstances of VanBuskirk’s death had nothing to do with Guedry’s investigation, but it was another stain on the air unit’s image. It would not be the last.
The month after VanBuskirk died, a scandal rocked the unit when a pilot gave Guns ‘N Roses guitarist DJ Ashba and his girlfriend a private ride over Las Vegas.
Captain David O’Leary, who knew Ashba from the local music scene and arranged the private ride, retired instead of taking a demotion.
A PILOT RETURNS
The pilot, Ray Horsley, was booted from the unit months later, after an internal investigation revealed he made an unauthorized landing in a field for Ashba to propose to the woman.
“Officer Horsley, effective January 11, 2014, will be transferred out of the Air Support Detail and will no longer be allowed to fly for the LVMPD,” Metro said in a statement.
But four months later, Horsley is back with the air unit.
Chris Collins, head of the rank-and-file officers’ union, said Horsley won a grievance with Metro’s labor management board. Even though Horsley never told his sergeant about the plan to land in a field at the department’s substation, Horsley never broke policy, Collins said.
Metro later overhauled its helicopter ride-along policies, but the stronger policies weren’t considered by the board reviewing Horsley’s appeal.
“They didn’t have a policy on the books that he broke,” Collins said.
Dixon said Horsley was initially held accountable for discrediting the department, but he was entitled to his appeal.
“Individually, Horsley himself has always been a very good pilot… landing the helicopter that particular day was against good judgment,” Dixon said. “I would hope he has learned his lesson and goes back and is humbled by the whole matter.”
If the department is serious about transferring Horsley, officials could try an administrative transfer as opposed to a disciplinary transfer.
Dixon said that’s unlikely, and Collins said the union would appeal any other type of transfer.
“That would clearly be retaliatory,” Collins said. “This turned out just the way it should have. (Horsley) landed on an authorized landing site, with orders from a superior office. But he was really the only one who got in trouble.”
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @blasky on Twitter.