Marine involved in crash that killed Romanian rock star is back in U.S.
By CHARLIE COON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 15, 2004
The U.S. Marine security guard who was driving an embassy-owned vehicle that collided with a taxi in Bucharest, Romania, killing a popular Romanian musician, has been assigned to administrative duties at his battalion headquarters in Virginia.
Meanwhile, military investigators traveled to Bucharest to determine if Staff Sgt. Christopher R. VanGoethem, 31, should be prosecuted in the death of Teofil Peter. The 50-year-old veteran rocker was the bass player for the Romanian rock band Compact.
VanGoethem, who was commander of the security detachment that guards the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, was taken out of Romania shortly after the Dec. 3 accident, angering many citizens there.
Romanian Premier Adrian Nastase sent a letter to President Bush asking Bush to “get involved in the solution” to calm Romanian public “outrage,” perhaps by waiving VanGoethem’s diplomatic immunity and returning him to Romania, according to a news release by the Romanian government. Romania has been a staunch ally of the United States in the war in Iraq.
Some news accounts reported that VanGoethem is suspected of driving drunk and that he refused to submit to alcohol-analysis tests and questioning by local authorities.
“I know the perception in Romania was that he was whisked out of the country,” Marine Maj. Matthew W. Morgan, a spokesman for the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said in a telephone interview.
“It was a decision the ambassador made. The bottom line is the situation is being investigated and that [VanGoethem] is not going anywhere; he’s at his battalion headquarters.”
As a member of the administrative staff at the embassy, VanGoethem is immune from being prosecuted by Romanian authorities but is still answerable to the U.S. military legal system, according to a statement issued by J.D. Crouch II, the U.S. ambassador to Romania.
According to a Marine spokesman, VanGoethem, of Iron County, Mich., and Marine Security Group’s Company H, voluntarily submitted to a Breathalyzer test at the scene of the Dec. 3 accident.
VanGoethem also submitted to a blood test, but only after it was agreed that the test would be given by U.S. personnel, according to the spokesman. The blood sample was then taken into custody by U.S. officials.
VanGoethem also gave a statement to Romanian investigators, Morgan said.
Morgan said that VanGoethem was directed by Crouch or by another embassy official to leave Romania and return to his company headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany.
VanGoethem was then transported to Marine Security Guard Battalion Headquarters in Quantico, Va., where he is performing administrative duties and is not in custody.
VanGoethem was scheduled within days “to return to the U.S. as part of a normal rotation,” Morgan said, adding that VanGoethem’s family had already moved from Bucharest. VanGoethem was assigned to the Bucharest detail in August 2003.
In his statement, Crouch said that VanGoethem was granted the same protection as any Romanian Embassy official working in the United States would be granted in the same situation.
“Once all the information about the accident has been assembled, there will be a determination as to appropriate next steps concerning the Marine,” Crouch said.
“My government is currently reviewing the government of Romania’s request that the Marine’s immunity be waived. Prime Minister Nastase sent a letter to President Bush on this issue. The White House has received the letter and is considering carefully the issues raised.”
Investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service went to Bucharest after the accident and are compiling evidence, re-creating the circumstances and examining the impounded vehicles.
“The NCIS is conducting their investigation and working closely with Romanian authorities,” Morgan said. “[VanGoethem] is available to them whenever they wish to speak to him.
“The lead agent, however, has indicated a desire to complete initial aspects of the investigation in Romania before speaking with the Marine.”
After the investigation is finished, Morgan said, an Article 32 hearing of evidence could be held to determine whether VanGoethem should face a court-martial.
Morgan said he doubted that any legal proceedings against VanGoethem would begin until after the December holidays.