SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — It looked like an open-and-shut case: a young U.S. Navy sailor found dead on a Japanese train platform, his windbreaker burned from the overhead wires of a train he appeared to have been climbing, with several empty cans of a Japanese cocktail nearby.
The initial theory was that Petty Officer 2nd Class Samuel Lewis Stiles had made his way into a small train station after it closed Oct. 28. He had been out drinking after curfew — imposed for U.S. military personnel in Japan just a few days earlier — and was looking for a place to wait until he could go back to base without getting into trouble.
But the investigation unfolded much differently, according to Navy documents.
Another Sasebo sailor is serving an eight-month sentence after being court-martialed for his actions — and inactions — at Japan Railways’ Haiki station that night.
The documents show that Stiles wasn’t alone, and that he might have survived his fall had fellow “urban hiking” buddy Petty Officer 2nd Class David Lange called an ambulance instead of fleeing in panic.
Electricity from the wires didn’t kill Stiles, 25. He died from respiratory failure about 45 to 90 minutes after he fell, the result of a cervical spine fracture.
It remains unclear how Lange, 26, from Dickinson, N.D., was caught.
His military lawyer in Sasebo, Navy Lt. Brandon Sargent, declined to comment for this story. Navy officials from Commander Naval Forces Japan authenticated the Navy documents and confirmed some of the facts but declined to provide further documents or comment; the case is up for appellate review with the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals.
“According to an agreed stipulation, [Lange] stated during the trial he was panicked that he would be implicated in Stiles’ death,” said Commander Naval Forces Japan spokesman Jon Nylander.
At Lange’s court-martial in September in Yokosuka, the sailor pleaded guilty to disobeying a lawful order, making false statements and drunk and disorderly conduct of such a nature as to bring discredit upon the Armed Forces, Nylander said. Lange was sentenced to eight months confinement, received a reduction in rank to seaman recruit and a $10,000 fine. and was given a bad-conduct discharge.
“This was a tragic incident,” Nylander said. “Our sympathies go out to Petty Officer Stiles’ family and friends for their loss.”
Stiles’ death made national news in Japan a year ago, coming so soon after an 11 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew was imposed for all servicemembers in response to a gang rape by two U.S. Navy sailors on Okinawa. Many who saw their liberty privileges restricted, or were embarrassed by continued bad behavior by servicemembers in the Pacific, took to message boards to criticize the dead sailor and even taunt his grieving family.
Stiles’ hometown of Johnstown, Pa., rallied around his family to block the Westboro Baptist Church extremist hate group from picketing his funeral.
“This has been a very hard and upsetting year,” Stiles’ older brother, Air Force Staff Sgt. Walter Stiles IV, said by phone from Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where he is stationed. “People have been saying all of this nasty, derogatory stuff about my brother. I don’t understand it; he was a deceased servicemember.”
The stunning revelations in the case were revealed in the final endorsement of the Line of Duty Investigation, signed Sept. 6 by former commander of the Pacific Fleet Adm. Cecil Haney. Haney reversed the initial investigating officer’s opinion that Stiles’ death was not in the line of duty and due to his own misconduct, citing a lack of “clear and convincing evidence.”
Haney disputed that Stiles should have known the consequences of climbing on top of the train, that he was involved in criminal activity and that intoxication led to his death.
Walter Stiles said the reversal ensured death benefits for his brother’s 4-year-old son in Norfolk, Va.
The report said Stiles and Lange had been engaged in “urban hiking,” essentially exploring city environments on foot, which has gained popularity in recent years with websites dedicated to the practice, as well as books, TV shows and magazine articles.
There is also an offshoot known as “place hacking,” where urban hikers exploit security gaps to get into places that are otherwise off-limits for thrills and views.
Japanese investigators “opined that, ‘There was a low probability that GM2 Stiles was involved in criminal activity,’” Haney wrote in the report. “GM2 Stiles’ actions were clearly careless, and likely negligent, but there is no indication that he knew the electrical equipment on top of the train would generate electricity before he made contact with the live wires. The train station was closed, the trains were not running, and the lights were dimmed.
“No qualified opinion indicates that GM2 Stiles’ voluntary intoxication overcame the rational and full exercise of his faculties.”
Stiles’ blood-alcohol content was 2.3 mg/ml, the report said. In many countries a reading higher than .5 mg/ml would be considered legally drunk if operating a vehicle.
In regard to Lange, whom Walter Stiles called one of his brother’s friends and hiking partners, Haney said there was “clear and convincing evidence” that the sailor had provided false statements to investigators. Citing the Japanese medical examiner, Haney said Stiles’ death “could have been caused by GM2 Lange’s failure to render aid.”
“GM2 Lange admits to having seen GM2 Stiles falling from the top of the train,” Haney wrote. “He then claims to have approached GM2 Stiles, called his name, and tapped him on the leg with his foot in an apparent effort to ‘wake him up.’
“GM2 Lange left GM2 Stiles on the platform and failed to render further aid, failed to call an ambulance or any other authority, and ultimately abandoned GM2 Stiles while he was gravely injured, but still alive on the train station platform. GM2 Stiles’ body was discovered 4 hours later.”
Navy officials said that as of Thursday, Lange was confined at the base brig in Yokosuka but will finish his sentence in San Diego.
The Stiles family believes that justice was served. However, they said they feel the pain of their loss every day. Gone is the “meticulous” sailor who loved music, weightlifting and climbing the mountains of Japan; the father who made YouTube videos for his young son back home; and the friend with a big heart.
Walter Stiles said his bond with his younger brother was sealed after their mother died of breast cancer when they were very young. They did everything together, including the decision to serve their country during a time of war.
“I feel guilty,” Stiles said. “We always had each other’s backs. If I was there I would have done something.”
That’s what feeds his animosity toward Lange: “I think this kid is a coward. He didn’t want to get in trouble breaking curfew. We’ll never know if there could have been another outcome.”