In Part I of Aero Bureau Noir,
WitnessLA’s 3-part investigation into alleged wrongdoing in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s elite aircraft unit, Aero Bureau, the department had just replaced their fleet of Sikorsky Sea King helicopters, which had been on loan to them from the Navy at no cost, under a controversial Defense Department program. With the arrival of the new aircraft, the LASD was required to return the Sea Kings and a pile of extra engines to the feds—specifically to Marine One, the helicopter program for the President of the United States. Mike Stille, the internationally known Sea King expert, was facilitating the transfer for the Navy. In the beginning, the return of the aircraft went smoothly. But when Stille began opening oil drum-like shipping containers, which should have contained around $2 million worth of pristine Sea King engines, he knew right away that something was very wrong.
Clues Found in Weird Paperwork
Bright red flags showed themselves the minute Mike Stille started paging through the paperwork that accompanied the Sea King engines.
Due to the stringent safety issues involved, all major aircraft parts such as engines, fuel controls, and gear boxes, must be accompanied by logbooks detailing when the part was serviced, on what aircraft or aircrafts it has been installed, and when, and so on.
Yet, for the first two of the six engines Stille just received, he noticed that the records for the fuel controls were completely missing.
When he and his crew at Clayton International opened the canisters for the two engines, the reason for the missing paperwork became evident. In general, the engines looked fine, except when it came to the fuel controls, without which the aircraft can’t fly.
“They were old and unusable.”
Next, Stille turned his attention to the other four canisters. These should have contained the four engines he’d seen in February at Aero Bureau’s surplus lot. But back then, those canisters had sported identification plaques, which included the engines’ serial numbers, the date when they had last been overhauled, and a third date when they’d been “preserved”—meaning wiped down thoroughly with protective oil, and then sealed in their containers for safekeeping.
In February, which was the last time Stille was physically at Aero Bureau’s Long Beach headquarters, he had sensed that something was about to go sideways with the returns. So, the ferociously detail-conscious Stille had photographed those ID plaques, which were basically pieces of paper wrapped in plastic.
But now, there were no ID labels, which was not a positive sign. There was no reason whatsoever for anyone to have removed those ID plaques, according to Stille.
One by one, he and his crew opened the four canisters.
“And I saw engines that were all but worthless,” said Stille. “They were just a bunch of old engine parts bolted back together.”
On one engine, the fuel control—which was painted a vivid claret—was not only worn out and unusable, “it belonged on an entirely different model of engine not used by the LA Sheriffs or the Navy,” Stille explained, pointing to the offending piece of equipment.
These were not, in other words, the four engines that the sheriff’s department was required to return to the Navy.
“These were junk.”
When Stille checked further, he saw that, bizarrely, the engines did have the same metal serial number plates—the equivalent of a vin number on a car—as those engines he had been hired to get back to the feds.
This meant someone had unscrewed number plates from the four good engines, and screwed them on these four unusable junkers now sitting on the concrete floor of Clayton’s warehouse.
The switched number plates led Stille to one more conclusion: Aero Bureau had sold the four good engines, worth around $400,000 or $500,000 a piece, to someone.
He was equally sure that the LASD had also sold the two good fuel controls, each of which were worth around $40,000.
But could he prove it?
Furious, Stille decided to try.
The Old Fuel Control Switcheroo
It didn’t take him long to figure out who might have bought the fuel controls.
He’d heard that a helicopter operating company in White City, Oregon, called the Croman Corporation, had recently been interested in acquiring some fuel controls. Croman specialized in contracting their helicopters, along with pilots, to the forest service for fire suppression. They occasionally also contracted their aircraft to timber firms to do heli-logging.
And Croman flew Sea Kings. Stille called Croman and talked to Kory Kaufman, another person he’d known for years, and whom he considered a friend. He asked if Kaufman had managed to procure any of those fuel controls he’d been looking for.
“Oh, yeah, the LA County Sheriff’s Department sold us two of them,” said Kaufman.
“And we also traded them two timed-out cores,” Kaufman added.
When WitnessLA spoke to Kaufman, he repeated what much of what he said to Stille, and explained that “timed out” means that the fuel controls cannot safely or legally fly until they’ve been overhauled.
According to Kaufman, one of his mechanics flew to LA to personally remove the good fuel controls from the Sea King engines, and screw the bad controls back in their place. “We wanted to make sure they were installed properly,” he said.
Kaufman also told us that the officials he spoke to at Aero Bureau never gave him, or anyone else at Croman, any reason to believe that the LASD didn’t have the right to sell the two fuel controls.
Interestingly, when it came to payment for the May 3, 2013 transaction, the Aero Bureau people didn’t want a check to be sent to the LASD, or to LA County, but rather they told Croman to send the $52,000 they’d agreed to pay Aero to the British Columbia-located Rotor Maxx, which overhauls various Sikorsky helicopters and parts, ostensibly to pay old bills or for future work.
Stille asked Kaufman if he still had the serial numbers of the two old fuel controls Croman had given to Aero Bureau. Kaufman did, and dug them up for Stille.
As Stille had suspected, the numbers Kaufman read off were identical to those on the timed-out parts installed on two of the supposedly good engines Stille was staring at in his warehouse.
Once he had the evidence of the fuel control switch, Stille turned his attention to the four other engines.
He suspected that, in a similar new-for-old deal, Aero Bureau had sold the four good engines to Rotor Maxx, the Canadian company that Croman had paid, and whose head guy he’d spoken with months earlier in the conversation that got him banned from Sheriff’s Department property via email.
(“Yeah, they sent copies of that email around to everybody at Aero Bureau,”one of our LASD pilot sources told us recently, adding that everyone had been instructed to be on the lookout for Stille, and to physically prevent him from coming on LASD property. “It was pretty ridiculous.”)
Stille also suspected that, as they’d done with Croman, in addition to whatever monetary payment changed hands, the Aero Bureau people had asked for four old engines so they’d have something to turn back into the Navy.
But unlike the elderly fuel controls, which still had their own serial numbers, someone had unscrewed the serial number plates that belonged on the new engines to be returned to the Navy, and switched them with the numbers from the old engines, as one might affix the vin number of a new car to the chassis of an old car, hoping to pass off old, as new.
(WitnessLA flew to Peachtree City to see the switched data plates, the paperwork and the engines for ourselves.)
Yet it was one thing to suspect that the LASD people had sold RotoMaxx four engines, then covered their actions by interchanging the serial number plates. It was quite another thing to find evidence to substantiate those suspicions.
But then Stille had an idea.
Because he did so much work for the Marine One program, the Navy and other government entities often stored equipment with his company.
As a consequence, Stille knew that the Navy had recently transferred 42 engines to the Department of State for use on the S-61T program, a helicopter being built by Sikorsky for use in the Middle East. The overhaul of a portion of these engines was managed by Sikorsky under a Department of State contract. Since there were so many engines that needed work, Sikorsky parceled the engines out to several contractors, including Rotor Maxx, to be overhauled from the ground up.
(Sikorsky hasn’t made any new Sea Kings or Sea King engines in years, so for those still devoted to the helicopters for their unique combination of qualities, the only way to get a “new” engine is to overhaul an old engine with obsessive skill and care.)
Stille knew about the deal because Clayton had been storing those engines for the Navy until they were needed.
Due to the fact that he is a meticulous record keeper, Stille still had copies of the logbooks for the engines he’d been storing, which meant he also had paperwork for every engine part that was installed on those old engines he’d stored.
Stille got out the logbooks and began scanning them. Voila. The data plates for the parts on four of that batch of old and unusable engines that had gone from his place to Rotor Maxx, via Sikorsky, matched the numbers on the parts attached to the four junk engines that the LASD had tried to pass off as being in like-new condition.
This also meant that Rotor Maxx had used the good engines meant for the Navy to perform their own sleight of hand: Instead of going to the cost and trouble of overhauling the old, junky engines for Sikorsky, they simply assembled faux “overhauled” engines from the major components of the four pristine LASD engines, with the data plates switched to fool Sikorsky into thinking Rotor Maxx had done the work for which they were going to be paid up to $300,000 per engine.
“In other words,” said Stille, since they underpaid for the LASD engines, “they made a very nice profit for doing nothing at all—and saying they did.”
As for the LASD, “the intent,” said Stille, “was to misrepresent what was being turned back into the Navy.”
Dave Rathbun agreed. “If somebody switched the data plates, it’s an attempt to deceive,” he said.
So what to do?
Stille talked the matter over with Rathbun, who had worked a while for Clayton after his retirement from the LASD in 2002, and the two had remained friends.
The former Air 5 Crew Chief said he thought it was time to notify the FBI.
Stille wasn’t convinced that the FBI was a good idea.
But Rathbun assured him. “I think they’re definitely going be interested.”
It helped that Rathbun knew exactly who to call.
[To Be Continued]
Ready to know more? You can find Part 3 of “Aero Bureau Noir” right here.
The Crime Report is co-publishing a slightly condensed version of this series with Witness LA.
This series was made possible with the generous support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.