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Lawyer seeks drone sensor operator’s release from Nellis jail

A Creech Air Force Base staff sergeant involved in overseas drone operations is being held in pretrial confinement while Air Force authorities consider charges against him based on allegations related to a domestic violence incident and drug use.

That’s according to federal court papers and his civilian attorney who claims the Air Force mishandled his case.

Staff Sgt. Shane R. Owens, 32, a sensor operator for laser-guided missile strikes by drone aircraft in the nation’s war on terrorism who has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, has been confined to a 24-hour lockdown facility at Nellis Air Force Base since March 5 awaiting a general officer to refer charges for a court-martial proceeding.

Trial attorney Craig Drummond filed a writ of habeas corpus petition April 9 with U.S. District Court in Las Vegas seeking Owens’ release on grounds that a “neutral and detached” officer has never performed a seven-day review of his continued confinement as required under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“The command has violated Article 10, UCMJ by holding him in confinement since March 5, 2015 without preferring charges and giving Staff Sergeant Owens the ability to defend himself,” Drummond wrote in an 11-page petition that names Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Lt. Col. Ryan P. Keeney, commander of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, as respondents.

Drummond noted that the pretrial confinement reviewing officer, Lt. Col. Erin D. Cluff, is not “neutral or detached” because she is married to Col. Jim Cluff, commander of the 432nd Wing at Creech, who is one of Owens’ commanders and commander of Keeney, the officer who put Owens in pretrial confinement.

“As a former Army prosecutor, this case is being handled in a bizarre manner and is extremely concerning regarding the U.S. Air Force’s handling of this Airman’s rights,” Drummond wrote in an email Wednesday to the Review-Journal.

“There is no bail or bond system for military members in pretrial confinement and it is normally a very fair process by a ‘neutral and detached officer’ to review their release to determine if it is appropriate and necessary. The appointment of the wife of one of the Airman’s commanders to review his pretrial confinement is clearly unjust, unfair, and improper,” Drummond said.

In the U.S. District Court filing, Drummond emphasizes in capital letters that the officer selected to perform the pretrial confinement review is the wife of one of Owens’ commanders. “In fact, it appears that her husband was two bosses up from the commander who actually placed Staff Sergeant Owens into confinement.”

There is no mention in the petition, however, that her husband, Col. Cluff, the wing commander, played any role the decision to confine Owens, nor is there anything that indicates she would have a personal interest in Owens’ confinement.

Creech’s public affairs staff fielded questions about the case and the Cluffs’ role in it from the Review-Journal but deferred “to our higher headquarters for answers,” according to an email late Friday. A call to Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., was not immediately returned.

The Creech base at Indian Springs, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is a hub for drone operations where pilots and sensor personnel sit at computer consoles to control unmanned MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft via satellite links for overseas combat operations. The court papers say that Owens “has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related to drone missions involving the loss of human life.”

According to Drummond, Owens’ marriage to his wife, Ashley Owens, began to fail late last year. After he told her of his plans to file for divorce, the relationship boiled over Feb. 20 when she alleged that he grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her to the ground.

Ashley Owens called Las Vegas police, who interviewed her, took a witness statement from a man who was driving near the scene at Durango Drive and El Capitan Way, then arrested Shane Owens. He was taken to the city jail and booked on domestic violence battery charges.

A protective order was issued against Shane Owens but on Feb. 26 a Clark County District judge denied to extend it after Ashley Owens failed to appear in Family Court.

On March 13, eight days after Air Force security put Staff Sgt. Owens in the Nellis confinement facility, Lt. Col. Erin Cluff issued a memo stating she had decided to keep him confined because she found “probable cause” that he had committed three crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice: assault by battery, wrongful use of methamphetamines, and wrongful possession of methamphetamines.

Lt. Col. Cluff also feared Owens was a flight risk because he “has both the financial means … and the connections to high level officers in the Vagos Motorcycle Club, a known criminal biker gang with ties throughout the US and into Mexico, to flee.”

Drummond said that reference to Owens being connected to the Vagos Motorcycle Club is “an allegation we believe is completely unfounded.”

In releasing his booking photo, Las Vegas police also said his arrest wasn’t related to any activity with the Vagos club and they weren’t aware of any activity involving him with the club.

On April 13, a month after Lt. Col. Cluff’s “probable cause” memo, a charge sheet signed by Lt. Col. Keeney accuses Owens of violating an order to cease all contact with Ashley Owens.

A second charge preferred by Keeney accuses Staff Sgt. Owens of violating the military’s code for use and possession of methamphetamine.

A third charge accuses him of unlawfully grabbing Ashley Owens and throwing her to the ground.

Results of Owens’ drug tests in the federal court exhibits show he tested positive for methamphetamine in a Feb. 27 sample analyzed by the Brooks laboratory in San Antonio but negative another time for urine toxicology and alcohol screens, according to a March 25 report from the 99th Medical Group at Nellis.

One exhibit, however, contains a series of Ashley Owens Facebook postings from February that say, “I’m kind of bummed out today because I made some pretty bad choices in my marriage. I falsely threw my husband under the bus out of anger without thinking about what would happen to him and now he won’t even talk to me.”

Another Ashley Owens Facebook entry says, “I know you didn’t touch me or anything and it was my friend that said that you did. I just didn’t want to get into trouble if I said You didn’t and I promise I didn’t think you (sic) get arrested.

“I also messed up your medicine a little bit by accident and I will let your doctors know I’m sorry. You might have had some aderal in there and if it was I didn’t mean for it to be in there. But you need to know that in case you get a drug test ok. I’m sorry babe will you please forgive me,” the post reads.

Drummond said the Air Force has declined to provide Ashley Owens’ contact information and he’s been unable to question her about the case.

He said he’s waiting for a general at Nellis to act on the charges. “Once a general reviews them, and if he or she refers them to a court-martial, then we will file a motion in the military to have him released.”

Review-Journal writer Wesley Juhl contributed to this report. Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.

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