In Part I and Part II 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 for more than a decade. This meant the LASD was required to return six Sea Kings they had borrowed at no cost from the feds, along with a pile of expensive extra engines. Specifically, everything was to go back to Marine One, the helicopter program for the President of the United States, for use in their training program. Mike Stille, the internationally known Sea King expert, was the middleman hired by the Navy for the transfer. Everything went fine until Stille noticed troubling irregularities in the returns and began to think that the top people at the LASD’s Aero had concocted a very profitable plan to cheat the aircrafts’ government owners. When Stille’s suspicions morphed into certainty, a former colleague convinced him it was time to call the FBI.
The FBI—and the LASD—Investigate
At the time that Dave Rathbun and Mike Stille began discussing the idea of calling the feds, the Los Angeles office of the FBI was already three plus years into its own criminal investigation into brutality and corruption by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
And, as it turned out, Rathbun’s LASD deputy son, Mike Rathbun, had already spoken to the feds multiple times as whistleblower. This came about after the younger Rathbun and his deputy partner, James Sexton, had witnessed what they believed to be serious wrongdoing by a deputy and a supervisor when they worked in the chronically-troubled county jail system. But when they tried to report what they knew to the appropriate parties at the LASD, they began receiving convincing threats. Eventually, the pattern of threats widened to include their family members, which meant that Dave Rathbun began having conversations with the FBI as well.
So, yes, Dave Rathbun knew whom to call.
But before laying the matter at the feet of the FBI, he felt honor bound to first notify the proper person in the Sheriff’s Department.
Thus on August 28, Rathbun drafted and sent an email to Chief Edmund Sexton of the Homeland Security Division of the LASD, which oversaw several of the department’s specialized units, Aero Bureau among them.
“Chief Sexton,” Rathbun wrote. “I send you this email because I don’t want you to be blindsided by some very troubling information that I have been made aware of….”
By the end of the following day, August 29, 2013, Sexton sent a formal request to Captain Alicia Ault of the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau asking for an investigation to be opened into the actions of Cpt. Louis Duran, Lt. Robert Wheat, and Sgt. Casey Dowling.
As for the potential violations that necessitated the investigation, Sexton wrote:
*Obedience to laws regulations and orders
*Performance to standards.
No Return Needed?
Along with the formal request to IAB, Sexton included a package of documents, which included a long letter from Casey Dowling to LASD higher-ups about the status of what he described as the “spare parts.” In the letter Dowling said that all the Navy’s property that they were supposed to give back had indeed been returned via Stille. They did, he admitted, keep six engines that they “weren’t required to return.” But all the rest of the engines, gear boxes, and tail or main rotors had gone back, according to Dowling.
Yet, according to piles of paperwork in Stille’s files, including email exchanges with LESO officials, a careful examination of the equipment picked up and brought to Clayton, and eyewitness observation by others about what items Aero Bureau still retained in its possession, the idea that everything that the Navy had requested had been returned, reportedly was not plausible.
In another, earlier email, Dowling assured head maintenance guy, Dennis Thompson, that the only thing that Aero Bureau was required to do for the Navy was to return the right number of items, never mind their provenance or condition. Furthermore, Aero Bureau had the “obligation” to “recoup as much of the sheriff’s moneys as possible” that they had “already spent” to maintain the Sea Kings.
Dowling ordered Thompson to “please move forward” with the deals with vendors like Rotor Max and others, who would agree to give the department non-useable parts—in addition to payment in the form of “maintenance credits”—so that the aforementioned right number of items could be returned to the Navy.
Additional documents show that Thompson indeed made the deal with RotorMaxx for a credit of $652,000.
Near the end of Sexton’s package there was a printed copy of the rules and restrictions of the LESO program, which seemed to directly counter Dowling’s claims that it was fine to keeping the six good engines and sell them for credits to anyone who would pay the price and go along with the deal. The LESO document stated, in part:
“Property may not be sold, rented, exchanged, leased, bartered, used to secure a loan, or stockpiled for later use.”
Also, “The receiving agency is responsible for all costs associated with the property after it is transferred.”
In other words, one does not get to sell or barter Navy property to recoup the money spent on routine maintenance and repair on the extremely valuable aircraft and equipment one has been using for free for years.
After he’d given the sheriff’s department time to make their move, Rathbun dialed Special Agent Leah Marx, and told her in detail what Stille had discovered.
Marx (who has since married and is now Leah Marx Tanner) was the lead agent on the existing LASD investigation. According to Rathbun, Marx said that financial wrongdoing wasn’t her expertise. “But I’m going to call a guy who does exactly this kind thing.”
The person Marx contacted was Special Agent Jonathan “Casey” MacDonald (who went by Casey). Soon both he and Marx were talking to Stille.
On December 4, 2013, the LASD investigators learned that the FBI was now on the case. As a consequence, the internal affairs probe screeched to halt, and the top three people at Aero Bureau during the engine swap period were relieved of duty by the sheriff’s department—namely Sgt. Casey Dowling, the guy who sent the email to Stille barring him from coming on sheriff’s department property, Lt. Robert Wheat, the operations lieutenant and second in command, and Captain Louis Duran, the bureau’s loyalty-obsessed commanding officer.
“They even fingerprinted the switched number plates…”
In 2014, Agent McDonald flew to Clayton headquarters in Peachtree City where, with a local FBI agent, he photographed the junk engines and the bad fuel controls, while Stille gave them a tutorial about what they were seeing.
“They even fingerprinted the switched number plates,” said Stille.
According to both Rathbun and Stille, the FBI’s concern escalated when they learned that these bad parts masquerading as good parts, were headed for the Marine One presidential program.
“I had to talk them out of the trees, a little,” Stille said. “I explained that although the engines were going to the presidential program, none of those engines would have wound up on the president’s personal aircraft.” They were slated to be used on training aircraft for the program.
Nevertheless, the agents were off and running. They contacted Croman and the Navy, and a list of others.
Croman’s Korey Kaufman said he talked to the feds several times, including once when he visited Stille in Peachtree City. “And we told them,” said Kaufman, “that we were the victims too.”
“At one point they were waiting for him to fly into the U.S. and they were going to seize him…”
The FBI was particularly eager to talk to Jeremy Brown at Rotor Maxx. But Brown was a Canadian, which meant various kinds of permissions were involved.
“At one point they were waiting for him to fly into the U.S. and they were going to seize him,” said Stille.
Eventually, the FBI did wind up, metaphorically, on Brown and Rotor Maxx’s doorstep, as Stille had warned they might many months before. But the actions of a Canadian company were not really what most interested the LA feds. It was the people at Aero Bureau.
Yet, as the investigation moved on during much of 2014, according to the feds, there was one large puzzle piece missing.
“Casey told me they still couldn’t find evidence of personal gain,” said Stille.
The feds wanted to know if money had found its way into anyone’s individual pockets. Although many familiar with the case of the switched engines felt someone at Aero Bureau had to be getting something out of the deal.
“Why take the risk of defrauding the federal government, if you weren’t getting something out of it?” asked one LASD source.
Certainly $10,000 could have changed hands between RotorMaxx and Louie or someone without leaving any trail, said a source we spoke with. And there were other suspected ways that remuneration might have taken place. “But how would you know if that happened or not?” And how would you prove it?”
It was also possible, said several Aero Bureau sources, that Duran and company simply wanted a slush fund they could draw on for bureau wants and needs without going to the county for approval.
In any event, despite ongoing suspicions, finding and proving personal gain became a sticking point, and gradually the Aero Bureau investigation began to slow down.
It didn’t help that, as 2014 ended and 2015 began, back in Los Angeles the feds’ interest was increasingly hyper-focused on gathering the evidence and witnesses needed to charge and try the former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, and after him the former sheriff, Lee Baca.
Finally, on April 13, 2015, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox—who was the lead prosecutor on the majority of the cases that the feds were bringing against members of the LASD —wrote a letter to Special Agent Casey McDonald officially “declining” to file charges.
When Casey McDonald told Stille that the FBI had decided to drop the case, he reiterated that their inability to nail down who personally profited was the stumbling block.
A source close to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, told us the same thing. They couldn’t pursue everything. The feds have bosses too. And, without finding the personal gain, the investigation lost its…well….punch.
Another source reported that one of the prosecutors put the decision not to file this way: “Look,” said the prosecutor, “there are only so many hours in the day.” They have human limitations too, the government lawyer said.
The State Department Takes a Turn
Interestingly, although the local feds dropped the investigation, agents from the investigative wing of the Office of the Inspector General in the State Department picked it up. And, in February 2016, Special Agent Samuel C. Brown contacted Stille.
Again, there was a flurry of action, mostly aimed at Rotor Maxx’s involvement with the allegedly fraudulent engine switch, but part way through 2016, this new D.C. based investigation also seemed to lose energy.
Once the feds had finished their probe, the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, could re-start their own investigation, which had been on hold since December 2013.
But later in 2016, LASD’s internal affairs too ended their investigation according sheriff’s department spokeswoman, Nicole Nishida. As for the outcome: “The conclusion cannot be disclosed,” she said.
Aero Bureau Goes to Court
There was one more strange plot twist still to come in the saga of the vanishing engines. Prior to the end of the IAB investigation, Louis Duran, Casey Dowling, and Robert Wheat—along with five other department members unrelated to Aero Bureau—filed a lawsuit against the County of Los Angeles alleging that former sheriff Lee Baca retaliated with extremely harmful consequences against each of them for their support of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s 2013-2014 candidacy for sheriff.
(Pre-indictment, Tanaka ran for the position of LA County Sheriff and made it as far as the November 2014 runoff.)
County lawyers asked the Aero Bureau three about the engine swap, but the county people weren’t terribly well informed on the byzantine Sea King issue, and their questioning was ineffective. Duran denied any but the most vague knowledge of the matter. When it was his turn, Casey Dowling cried on the witness stand due to the pain he said, he experienced after being relieved of duty. Bob Wheat generally left emotion out of it.
On December 15, 2015, after a trial that was nearly a month long, a federal jury found in favor of the plaintiffs.
Duran, Dowling, and Wheat each received $120,000 in damages, plus attorneys fees of over a million dollars.
Louis Duran, Casey Dowling, and Robert Wheat are now retired from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and collecting pensions. In addition, Duran and Dowling have a new jobs. Wheat retired in March, but we don’t know what he is doing at the moment.
After the various investigations were over, according to Brad Gage, the men’s attorney—during the civil trial and now—the three were returned to duty in good standing at the LASD. Gage also told us emphatically that his three clients had been cleared of any wrongdoing by three different agencies.
As for Rotor Maxx, Jeremy Brown, who was the firm’s founder, is no longer with the company and was reportedly forced into a buyout by his partners, in part because of the Sea King engine debacle.
Many inside or close to Aero Bureau continue to feel unsettled by the outcome of the Sea King situation.
According to one pilot, who was familiar with the details of the Rotor Maxx arrangement, actions such as passing off bad fuel controls for good ones, and switching the data plates from the good engines to the junk engines, were truly dangerous.
“You don’t tamper with serial numbers. You don’t tamper with the logs for parts, you don’t tamper with what’s ‘serviceable’ and what is ‘not serviceable.’ You don’t ever do something like that,” he said grimly. “It’s crazy! What if one of those parts had wound up on a plane?”
What if Stille had not caught what he caught?
A few years ago, IAB investigations into whistleblower allegations were routinely quashed during the period when Louis Duran’s mentor, Paul Tanaka, had control of both the Internal Affairs Bureau and Internal Criminal investigations Bureau (ICIB). But why did this most recent IA investigation come to nothing? some of them wanted to know.
Mike Stille put it another way.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is that the choices and actions” by certain people in Aero Bureau “hold in contempt the good will of the Navy to loan the use of Navy aircraft and engines for all those years.”
“Look,” a pilot whom we spoke to this week said, “eighty-five percent of the guys at Aero Bureau aren’t like that. We just want to go to work, and do the right thing, and do a good job protecting and serving the residents of Los Angeles County. We love what we do. We keep showing up.”
As for Duran and company?
“Let’s just say that we’re glad they’re gone.”
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.
NOTe: Updated on May 1, 2017, 6:15 p.m.