Four sailors arraigned in deaths of Navy divers at Aberdeen
Cmdr. Michael Runkle, commander of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, speaks March 14, 2013, during a memorial service at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va., for Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris, who died during diving training in February. Runkle was relieved of command May 9, according to a Navy statement, which cited safety concerns within the unit as contributing factors to Runkle's removal.
NORFOLK, Va. — A military judge has reserved most of January for the trials of four sailors charged for their roles in the accidental deaths of two Navy divers.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason M. Bennett, Chief Petty Officer Gary G. Ladd Jr., Senior Chief Petty Officer David C. Jones and Senior Chief Petty Officer James C. Burger, all of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, were arraigned Wednesday at Norfolk Naval Station.
All four are charged with dereliction of duty in connection to the Feb. 26 deaths of Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris, who died during a training dive at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
Marine Capt. Keaton Harrell, the lead prosecutor, told the judge, Cmdr. Colleen Glaser-Allen, that the cases are complicated and each is likely to require several days of testimony.
A fifth sailor, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Smith, accepted administrative punishment for his role in the training accident. The four facing courts-martial refused to accept non-judicial punishment, known as captain’s mast.
Reyher and Harris were diving at a testing facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The spot is known as the Super Pond – a 1,070-foot-long, 150-foot-deep pond on the banks of the Bush River that’s used to shock-test ships and submarines.
The unit’s top officer, Cmdr. Michael Runkle, was relieved in the wake of the accident.
Burger and Smith initially faced the possibility of years in prison on charges of involuntary manslaughter and dereliction of duty in connection to the deaths. A two-day pretrial hearing in June known as an Article 32, roughly equivalent to a civilian grand jury hearing, revealed numerous problems on the day of the fatal dive, including broken equipment, tangled tethering lines and problematic scuba breathing gear that the Navy later removed from its list of approved cold-water diving equipment.
After the hearing, the investigating officer determined there was not reasonable grounds to proceed with the case and recommended no charges against Burger and Smith, according to a source close to the case.
Despite that recommendation, the commander of EOD Group 2, Capt. John Coffey, determined that the five sailors should face punishment for not ensuring that risks were properly analyzed during the dive and for not adhering to procedures in the Navy Diving Manual and in the unit’s diving instructions.
Ladd, Jones and Bennett were each called to testify during the June hearing. Bennett exercised his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
Ladd, Jones and Burger are each charged with one count of dereliction of duty and face a maximum of three months in prison and three months with 2/3rds of their pay suspended. Bennett is charged with two counts of dereliction of duty and could be sentenced to up to six months in prison and six months and lose 2/3rds of his pay for six months.
Pending the outcome of the cases, the four men have been removed from leadership roles. The accused and their Navy defense lawyers did not speak with reporters following the hearings Wednesday.
Burger’s attorney, Lt. John Butler, released a short statement.
“This was a tragic accident, but it was not a crime,” he wrote. “Senior Chief Burger steadfastly maintains his innocence and looks forward to his day in court and to clearing his good name.”