Aero Bureau Noir

WitnessLA Wins 2nd Place Prize for Online Investigative Journalism at Sunday’s LA Press Club Awards!

LASD Sea King courtesy of LA County
Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

We were very surprised when WitnessLA was awarded 2nd place in the unusually competitive category of Online Investigative Journalism at Sunday night’s 60th Southern California Journalism Awards sponsored by the LA Press Club.

In truth, we were actually quite delighted just to be a finalist this year, but had no expectations of snagging one of the top three places in the online investigative category since we were up against stiff competition:

There was a complex and gritty series from Capital and Main, together with Newsweek, investigating Labor Secretary Nominee Andrew Puzder’s Fast Food Empire.  Then the LA Times (digital) had a story about hidden campaign donors.   There was a good and lengthy series about Homelessness in the O.C., from the Voice of O.C., And finally  a gritty and doggedly-researched series from Reason Magazine about opioid stings in Florida–which deservedly got first place!

Yet we snagged second place award for our three-part series,  Aero Bureau Noir, in which WLA dug into alleged wrongdoing and corruption by a small but powerful cadre of members of the Los Angeles sheriff’s department’s elite aircraft unit, Aero Bureau.

In case you haven’t read it, the series tells how the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s 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 that 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 the training program. Mike Stille, the internationally known Sea King expert, was the middleman hired by the Navy for the transfer, which began in December 2011. Everything went fine until in mid-2012, Stille noticed troubling irregularities in the returns. It began to dawn on him that a small group of the top people at Aero Bureau may have concocted a very profitable plan to cheat the aircrafts’ government owners out of a large pile of money. But could he prove it?  As  Stille’s suspicions morphed into certainty, a former colleague convinced him it was time to call the FBI….

We think it’s quite a tale. Below are the links to the three chapters in case you’d like to check out our newly prizing winning series!

AERO BUREAU NOIR, Part 1: The Strange Case Of The LASD’s Missing Helicopter Engines

AERO BUREAU NOIR, Part II: The Magical Data Plate Switch


The Aero Bureau series was, by the way, made possible with the generous support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism


  • Ironic that this internal investigation was intertwined with the Pandora Box Scandal in LASD. Not a good look nor a good fit for recruitment in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The big conversation was always about cops being crooked in the midwest and back east departments, ie Chicago P.D. & NYPD. LASD & LAPD is no different from their aforementioned counterparts, only locations.

  • Don’t forget to add the FBI and DOJ to the list of corrupt law enforcement agencies. It’s ironic, that the FBI investigation was the reason for the truth coming out about corruption within the LASD. Fast forward to today, and it is pretty clear the “top cops” are not the squeaky clean, ethical, unbiased fact finding investigative agency they purport to be.

    Who policies and monitors the “top cop”…definitely not their boss…THE US CONGRESS.

  • Maybe someone should look into the 10 fentanyl overdoses this week at nccf because they’re not doing any searches anymore. It’s my understanding from a very reliable source that even if the narco dog hits on an inmate’s ass they’re still letting them walk right into the jails.

  • Congrats WLA!!!

    Congrats for being fair, unbiased, trustworthy and always presenting just the facts and not leaning in any one direction.

    Your unbiased reporting is refreshing and a true example on how journalism should look like in this country.

    Your compassion and understanding towards what law enforcement deal with is unmatched.
    Your desire for criminals to be held accountable is truly refreshing!!!

    Eye Roll Emoji.

  • Congratulations to WLA.
    In other news, SCOTUS ruled against Public Unions. Deputies should be shouting hallelujah as they can now drop ALADS. For those in the know, pass the word along and be aware that all you need is a small fee for legal representation elsewhere. So long to the money grubbing, ineffective and selective representation of ALADS, who’ll run on fumes instead on ransom.

  • Mark my words. Both unions are now going to try and sound all tough. They’re both going to endorse early and pretend like they actually care about them.

  • No more complaining about ALADS, just DROP them! I hope the brotherhood of deputies wake up and smell their newfound freedom. Let’s see how far ALADS gets without them padding the pockets of politicians and lawyers parading as pimps against the wishes of the majority. So long to the mob like strong armed robbery by ALADS.
    No doubt that the “little big man” at ALADS will hang up his hat as the money trail diminishes.

  • Congratulations to Celeste and Witness LA. As Investigative Journalists already knows, the higher standard is not always standard when dealing with upper management in many organizations and companies, be it government or corporate. From the White House to the Courthouse and Fortune 500 companies, exposure is a double edged sword, good for the good and bad for the bad.

  • Although I find most of the reporting one-sided and left-leaning, I congratulate you and your staff for the recognition and award.

  • I’m sure that there wil be another investigative journalist to add what the L.A. Times uncovered about the Brady List. Sure there are some on that list who were railroaded and some were sent down the river but surely that’s another scandal waiting to be exposed and told. The exposure would no doubt exonerate many and name real culprits in management who are probably long gone and retired.

  • Very well earned Congratulations, Celeste. Your investigative journalism of the filth, dirt and corruption of the Baca/Tanaka Crime Family is nothing less than historic. The LAT and many other media outlets slept while you and your journalists kept shining the spotlight of truth while the cockroaches ran. Keep shining that light inside LASD, there is a different type of roach inside that organization now.

    Wonder what became of the Department’s most intelligent captain, Louie Duran?

  • Let’s hope some of this “hard hitting” investigative energy makes its way into the inner workings and back-door dealings of thebLos Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Los Angeles City Hall. One can only assume the head of the snake is not ever without fault or blame with respect to what damage and harm the body and tail do.

  • He is doing very well with his medical retirement from his Captains pay with flight bonus.

Leave a Comment