Allegations that Metropolitan Police Department command staff covered up an investigation into the department’s embattled air support unit are without merit, Clark County prosecutors concluded in an 18-page report released Wednesday.
“‘The Department’s handling of the SOAR (Safety and Operational Aviation Review) Team, the assessment and subsequent report does not rise to the level of improper governmental action as alleged in the initial letter requesting an investigation, and therefore these claims are without merit,” stated the report authored by Chief Deputy District Attorney Jessica Walsh.
The initial letter, sent to prosecutors March 13, was written by now-retired Lt. Gawain Guedry and Sgt. Leonard Lorusso, who said high-ranking Metro officers changed the 100-page SOAR assessment written by the two men.
However, the district attorney’s report said that Guedry and Lorusso failed to provide evidence of improper governmental action by high-ranking Metro officials, who told prosecutors they found the 100-page assessment to be unprofessional, filled with “negativity, subjectivity, and fantastically-reached conclusions.”
The district attorney’s report did find that Guedry uncovered that the air unit failed to report to the proper federal aviation authorities a Nov. 19, 2011, accident involving a helicopter blade strike. Guedry’s team alleged a mechanic was coerced into giving the helicopter air-worthy status.
Prosecutors spoke to the mechanic who denied he was the victim of coercion, a felony offense. The mechanic said, “he would never allow a pilot to influence him or his opinions, especially if it would put another crew in jeopardy,” according to the district attorney’s report.
The district attorney’s investigation found that after the blade strike the helicopter was allowed into service and was used in a rescue mission the next day. “After that mission, the helicopter was once again ‘red tagged’ by the mechanic and the blade was ultimately replaced,” the district attorney’s report said.
In 2013, Deputy Chief Kirk Primas reported the crash to the National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB after the SOAR Team found that it had never been reported to the federal agency, the district attorney’s report said.
“The history of the Air Support Unit suggests there are some concerns regarding accurately and properly reporting, both internally and externally to the appropriate federal agency, all accidents, incidents or crashes,” the district attorney’s report said.
However, the district attorney’s office found that the NTSB was the final authority in aviation investigations and Clark County prosecutors did not have jurisdiction in the matter. A NTSB investigator told the district attorney’s office that he was investigating allegations associated with the November 2011 crash.
Metro officials sought an assessment of the air support unit after a series of mishaps.
Guedry, a former police pilot, Lorusso and another officer were tasked with auditing the air unit after a pair of helicopter incidents in 2012. In May 2012, a rescue helicopter clipped a Red Rock Canyon wall with its rotor blade during a training mission. And in September 2012, a $1 million helicopter was totaled in a training accident at the North Las Vegas Airport.
After seven months, Guedry’s investigation ended and things got worse for the air unit. Hours after Guedry sent an email to his superiors that his findings might be unpopular, tragedy struck.
“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. 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 Metro continue to investigate the accident.
A month later, a scandal rocked the unit when a pilot gave Guns N’ Roses guitarist DJ Ashba and his girlfriend a private ride over Las Vegas. Capt. David O’Leary, who arranged the private ride, retired instead of taking a demotion.
Meanwhile, the district attorney’s report noted that some of the alleged crimes investigated had passed their statute of limitations.
The district attorney’s report found that the SOAR Team report was “not changed, modified, minimized, or softened. That report exists as written by the SOAR Team as an administrative internal report, even though it contains opinions, uncorroborated claims and claims geared towards accountability, misconduct, and assigning blame for past incidents.”
The assessment has never been made public and Metro’s lawyers say it remains a confidential file.
Metro’s Office of Internal Oversight released an eight-page progress report for the air unit, listing 70 training, safety, operations and personnel recommendations, based on Guedry’s suggestions. Many of the recommendations have been implemented, such as creating a safety officer position and updating training and operational procedures.
District Attorney Steve Wolfson said in a statement: “We took the allegations very seriously and conducted a thorough and exhaustive investigation. In the end we did not find any evidence of improper governmental action.”
Guedry and Lorusso’s letter requesting an investigation was sent to the district attorney’s office by John Aldrich, the lawyer for Metro’s police managers and supervisors union. Aldrich did not return a call Wednesday requesting comment.
The police department through a spokesman would not comment on Wolfson’s report because the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating.
Contact Francis McCabe at firstname.lastname@example.org or702-224-5512. Find him on Twitter: @fjmccabe