Misconduct and brutality at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has resulted in criminal convictions for 21 department members, including former Sheriff Lee Baca. Now that the string of high profile federal trials have finished, and the LASD is being led by a reform minded sheriff, has the department’s “culture of corruption,” as the U.S. Attorney put it, been adequately swept away? A new 3-part investigation by WitnessLA into possible incidents of high level fraud relating to a fleet of Sea King helicopters loaned under a controversial Defense Department program suggests a troubling answer to that question.
Part I: The Mystery of the Engines
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 the things.
Each one of the cans, which are a bit larger than oil drums, should have contained a Sikorsky helicopter engine in perfect condition that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was required to return to the U.S. Navy. Stille was the middleman between the LA Sheriffs and the engines’ owners, the feds.
Mike Stille is the president and founder of Clayton International, which specializes in the support of Sikorsky H-3 Sea King helicopters worldwide. He has, for example, overhauled and continued to service the Sea King that, in 1974, Richard Nixon gave Egypt’s late president Anwar Sadat. He works on the aircraft for such nations as India, Malaysia, Germany, the U.K., Denmark, Argentina and Peru
And, most relevant for our story, for fourteen years, he was the Sea King expert for the LA County Sheriff’s Department, the nation’s largest sheriff’s agency.
The Sea King, for those unfamiliar, is a twin engine, all-weather aircraft that has been flying for the US Navy in one variant or another since 1959. It was originally developed for anti-submarine amphibious warfare. During the 1960s and 70s it was the aircraft that fished returning astronauts out of the South Pacific.
In the non-military world, the Sea King’s ability to stay airborne for three to four hours at a time, along with an exceptional degree of dependability, and the roominess of the aircraft’s interior—-you can actually stand up inside the thing—also made it the ideal aircraft for search and rescue work. The US Coast Guard used various iterations of the Sea Kings for decades.
Those same qualities have made the Sikorsky H-3 Sea King the primary aircraft used in the Navy’s Marine One program.
Marine One is what they call the fleet of helicopters that land on the South Lawn of the White House to transport the President of the United States.
This brings us back to the engines that were supposed to be inside the giant cans in Clayton International’s warehouse, which—along with six H-3 Sea King aircraft—had been on loan to the sheriff’s department for well over a decade. But now the department was getting a fleet of newer helicopters, so all their Sea Kings and their supply of extra engines, were scheduled to be returned to the federal government for potential use by Marine One’s training program.
It was Clayton’s job to retrieve the aircraft and equipment for the Navy. Stille was hired to do so, in part because of his longtime relationship with the Marine One program, and also because he is one of a handful of people who know the Sikorsky Sea Kings better than anyone in the world.
Thus when he began to uncrate the newly arrived engines, this also meant he was one of the few people on the planet who could have noticed immediately that something was very wrong.
This last fact would turn out to be bad news for certain members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
‘Culture of Corruption’Of late, the LA County Sheriff’s Department has gone through a very dark time. In the last four years, twenty-one members of the LASD have been convicted of federal crimes, including the department’s once-powerful former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka. On March 15, Lee Baca, the popular four-time elected sheriff was himself convicted of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and lying to federal officials.
In January of this year, Tanaka entered a federal prison in Colorado to begin serving a five-year sentence. Former sheriff Baca will receive his own sentence from a federal judge on May 12.
On the day of Tanaka’s conviction, 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.”
When reform-minded Jim McDonnell was sworn in as the new sheriff in December 1, 2014, the first outsider to lead the department in more than 100 years, the county breathed a sigh of relief.
Yet a toxic culture does not change easily, and many department members, working and retired, have expressed concern that significant remnants 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.
The 1033 Program
The way the LA County Sheriffs came into possession of the fleet of H-3 Sea Kings, in the first place, had to do with the nation’s Law Enforcement Support Office program (LESO), also known as the 1033 program, which was created by congress as part of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act.
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 the cops could make good use of these freebees that the feds no longer needed.
The matter of law enforcement agencies accepting excess military items from the federal government has become a controversial topic in recent years after school police began acquiring grenade launchers (we’re talking to you, Los Angeles Unified School District), and smallish police agencies across the nation started serving search warrants using 20 ft. long, 14-ton, steel-plated, mine resistant, and ambush proof vehicles—MRAPs—which are not, shall we say, the ideal choice for patrolling city streets or for arresting the local weed dealer.
In 2015, the Obama administration severely curtailed the program in the aftermath of the publicity surrounding their use MRAPS in the Ferguson, Missouri, protests; but the Trump administration has signaled its support.
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.
In California, the Ventura Sheriff’s Department procured four infrared imaging systems for the department’s four helicopters, which were in need of such items for nighttime search-and-rescue missions.
This brings us to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’ Department and those helicopter engines that concerned Mike Stille.
Like most large police agencies, the LA County Sheriff’s Department uses various aircraft as part of its policing and other operations.
Aero Bureau, as the name implies, 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, and 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.
The LASD first began using helicopters for search and rescue in 1955, with a single engine Bell 47, a two person aircraft with a soap bubble pilot’s cabin. In 1972, the department acquired three Sikorsky piston engine helicopters that had been used in early Vietnam, but which could hold more people than the Bell. These were, in turn, replaced with another version of the same aircraft in 1984.
By 1996, however, 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.
Air Rescue 5 crew chief, Dave Ruthbun, and then Aero Bureau captain Jim DiGiovanna, were among those on the official committee that determined the ideal new helicopters would be a small fleet of Sikorsky H-3 Sea Kings.
But the H-3s were very pricey and, unlike some other military aircraft, they were not available as military surplus, But, because they were still in use for Marine One, thus any extra aircraft or equipment was labeled “excess” and, as such, was not available for the LESO program.
“This was crucial,” said Rathbun, who is now retired. Surplus, he said, “means the military doesn’t need something any more because they’ve upgraded to something different. ‘Excess’ meant we’re still using them” so the extras might be needed at any time, thus were excluded from LESO.
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 Rathbun. But when DiGiovanna took the idea up the chain of command to then-sheriff Sherman Block, Block said he would talk to Senator Dianne Feinstein about the matter.
Feinstein agreed to try to help them out, and went to the Chief of Navel Operations and asked him to designate four Sea Kings as surplus instead of their real designation of excess, said Di Giovanna. Although it was an usual request, he said yes.
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 helicopters, plus 8 older model engines that could be raided for parts, and 25 extra good engines for use on the aircraft.
The LASD Gets a Consultant
With the acquisition of the Sea Kings, the LASD also contracted for the services of Sikorsky expert Stille who, starting in December, 1997 served as their consultant and all-round Sea-King guru.
Stille and his engineers at Clayton designed modifications to make the powerful military helicopters suitable for the search and rescue tasks and other work they would be doing as part of a law enforcement fleet—in addition to acting as advisors in the day-to-day operation of the fleet.
“I didn’t know of anyone with his kind of expertise with the H-3s,” said retired Aero captain Di Giovanna.
The acquisition paid off for the residents 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.”
Loyalty Oaths & Strange Contracts
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, a new guy named Louis Duran took over as head of the place, and things changed a lot.
Duran had previously applied to Aero Bureau, but Di Giovanna refused to hire him saying he wasn’t suited to the unit.
But by 2008, 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 face 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.
“Dude. I’m loyal to the bureau, but I don’t want to swear loyalty to some guy…”
“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.’
“But you can’t say that, of course.”
A little over a year after he arrived, Duran set out to replace every helicopter the LASD’s possession. First, in 2010, he succeeded in persuading the LASD higher-ups to lobby the LA County Board of Supervisors to approve $56.7 million for the purchase of a dozen Eurocopter AStars for patrol duty, the largest aircraft acquisition in the county’s history. Then in 2011, Duran, lobbied to dump the Sea Kings, which he’d reportedly never liked 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 purportedly 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 reported manipulation of overtime. Others were larger, such as the allegations, by a former Aero Bureau pilot, Sergeant Richard Gurr, now retired, who 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, all to the tune of upwards of $11 million.
Gurr also alleged that Duran and a small group of supervisors who worked under him colluded to rig the bidding process, for the reportedly overcharging vendor.
This accusation was repeated—along with additional allegations of corruption on the part of Duran and his inner circle—as part of a June 2011 whistleblower lawsuit filed against LA County by Lt. Edison Cook, a 33-year, squeaky clean veteran of the department who came to Aero Bureau in the summer of 2009, and was alarmed by what he saw.
In any case, it was in this context that 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.
Out With the Old, In With the New
“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.’”
After a couple of notable instances of abuse of the program (one involving an enterprising Florida sheriff whose Huey helicopter frames wound up in the possession a country with which the U.S. has a trade embargo), LESO laid down stringent rules dictating that any equipment with a possible military use had to be returned to the federal 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, or worse. (The Florida Sheriff went to prison.)
According to Stille 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 —or LESO—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.
A representative of the Marine One program named Sylvester Campbell, but known as “Soupy,” sent the LASD a letter explaining how the turn in would work—namely that Stille would pick up the helicopters, the engines, and anything else, and return them to the Navy.
Furthermore, the Navy was not at all casual about reacquiring the equipment they’d loaned to the LA County Sheriffs. “The Navy sent people out to LA to inspect the H-3s and the engines,” said Stille. “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 its gradual changeover to the Super Pumas.
By the end of February 2012, Stille’s people had picked up two helicopters, and of the cache of extra engines for the H-3s.
There were a few problems. When the department sent the two aircraft, they were both devoid of engines.
There were also some additional large pricy components 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 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 headquarters on his way to a yearly helicopter convention to be held in Las Vegas. 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 another person was also planning to make an offer on the extra Sea King equipment. Stille said he might consider upping his bid and asked to see the items he would be buying.
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 was soon scheduled to pick up for 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 in the hope of dispelling his fears.
Bad Moon Rising
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, 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 since 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.
“you need to tell them that what they’re buying is federal property”
“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, sometime 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 email was cc’d to Dowling’s two bosses, Lt. Robert Wheat and Cpt. Louis Duran.
For Aero Bureau to ban Stille and all his Clayton personnel from LA sheriff’s department property was non-starter for the Navy. In short order, a Marine major named Brandenburg emailed Aero Bureau to tell them, “Sorry, but Clayton is collecting all this stuff for us, and you have to deal with them,” or words to that effect.
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]
And then go on to AERO BUREAU NOIR, Part 3: Enter the Feds.
This series was made possible with the generous support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
The Crime Report is co-publishing a slightly condensed version of this story with Witness LA.