A sailor rammed through a gate at Naval Air Station Oceana. But did he have to die?
By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: November 16, 2018
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Before leaving his barracks for the last time, Navy Seaman Robert "Colton" Wright texted a friend a photo of a box of 16-ounce Coors Light cans along with a message: "Couldn't wait dude."
That was at 2:40 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, a little less than two hours before Wright left Naval Air Station Oceana to buy a bottle of Jack Daniels, sodas and some Pedialyte, a known hangover remedy. Shortly before 10 p.m., witnesses who called 911 described "mayhem" as Wright, 21, left a string of hit-and-runs before slamming his black 2012 Dodge Ram pickup through the master jet base’s unmanned closed back gate.
The night started with drinking and watching movies at a friend's off-base townhouse. It ended, after a brief manhunt, when the unarmed Wright was fatally shot inside the F/A-18 E Super Hornet hangar where he worked, according to a Naval Criminal Investigative Service report on his death.
The heavily redacted, 1,000-page NCIS report, completed last November, lays out a chaotic scene unfolding in real time. It also reveals that, for nearly 10 minutes, law enforcement was on the lookout for a damaged pickup that might be headed toward the base – while it was already there, idling outside Hangar 111, about two miles away from the back gate. An Uber driver who saw Wright “barrel” through the gate told NCIS he thought he was witnessing a terrorist attack.
“You don’t want a drunk sailor, or a criminal or a terrorist to just run through a gate like that,” said retired Navy Capt. Joe Bouchard, who commanded Naval Station Norfolk during the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
While the report raises questions about potential lapses in base security, neither does it pinpoint what set off the deadly chain of events for a sailor who just weeks earlier was named by his technical school peers as most likely to become Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy.
Now, a mother is left to grieve and wonder about what caused her son to behave so far out of character. Bridget Wright also questions the Navy's account of that night and why it justified the master-at-arms' use of force.
Colton was barefoot at the time and was not a big guy, she said. Just how intimidating was he?
"This is the worst nightmare that any parent can ever endure," Wright said in a phone interview. "I mean, if he had been deployed, would his death be any easier? No. But at least you can see he was in combat, there's a chance for him to get shot and killed. On base? Really?"
Wright’s leadership, military bearing and ability to “run laps” around others helped him stand out after he reported for boot camp in May 2016. He was picked to lead the other 65 recruits in his class. When he graduated, he was advanced a rank because of his performance.
He showed up at Strike Fighter Squadron 81, the “Sunliners,” in early January 2017. Though he was an information systems technician, he was temporarily assigned to work in the snack bar, where he spent much of his time studying for his wings.
Interviews and summaries of Wright’s text messages and social media use throughout the NCIS report portray him as a squared-away sailor and a loyal friend, the type who Bridget Wright said would make Taco Bell runs for friends who were stuck at work.
To his mother's chagrin, he harbored dreams of joining the special warfare community, but he was conflicted. He liked the excitement of being in the Navy but also questioned if he’d want a long career that would take him away from his family in Colorado. He was maybe a little homesick, but no more so than anyone else who was new to military life.
Wright had volunteered with the Franktown Fire Protection District, about 35 miles southeast of Denver, before joining the Navy. Deputy Chief David Woodrick told The Virginian-Pilot last year that Wright was motivated to “help people, be there and make a positive difference.” At Oceana, Wright seemed to want to continue that volunteering. In early February, he dropped by Fire Station 7 to ask about helping in his off hours. Volunteers weren’t allowed on calls, a staffer told him according to the NCIS report, but he could come back when they were training to keep his skills up.
Wright drank socially, but alcohol didn’t seem to have too negative of an effect on him, except for an incident in August 2016. Wright told others about a time during “A” school – the Navy’s name for technical schools that follow boot camp – in which he’d gotten separated from friends after dancing at a Pensacola club and awoke “a block from base cuddled up under a tree.”
Even if he did indulge sometimes, Wright seemed to be mostly responsible about it. The day before he was shot, he texted with a friend, asking her if she was intoxicated and cautioned her not to drive.
Perhaps all of that made how Wright’s life ended even more bewildering.
“The sad part is, I don’t think we’ll ever really know why Seaman Wright chose to come to base that evening,” said Oceana Commanding Officer Capt. Chad Vincelette, who was serving as the base’s executive officer when the incident occurred.
“We just don’t know.”
Wright brought the Jack Daniels and soda to a Virginia Beach apartment off Reagan Avenue shared by three other sailors, including the one he texted earlier in the afternoon. He arrived around 5:30 p.m. Wright and at least one of the sailors watched the movie "Ava," then a zombie flick. After they got into a third movie, Wright went to the kitchen as his friend scrolled the website Tumblr on his phone, barely noticing.
At 9:38 p.m. Wright sent a Snapchat message to about 60 people – some recent Navy friends, others he hadn’t spoken with since high school. The message overlaid a picture of a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels and a cup:
“Drink to have fun!! Not cause trouble! Rebel days are over!! Enjoy life!!! You only get one remember it … don’t waste it,” Wright said.
Less than 20 minutes later, the calls started coming in to 911.
A woman reported she’d been sideswiped as she waited in her Dodge Dart to turn left from Drakesmile Road on to Dam Neck Road, about 2½ miles from Oceana's back gate. Her infant son slept through the incident, and no one was injured.
“He hit me and ran and he did not have lights on,” the woman said.
Others said Wright appeared to be driving 80 to 90 mph – “hauling ass,” one 911 caller said.
In a third call, a man reporting being sideswiped at Taylor Farm and Dam Neck roads. With his mirror dangling, he followed Wright and watched his truck sit "stuck" at the closed and unmanned back gate, unable to get in. As the man circled in his vehicle, he described watching Wright drive off and loop back toward the gate several times.
"He is being erratic right now," the man said. "He's trying to fight other motorists."
The call ended before Wright breached the gate with a dispatcher telling the man police were en route.
Inside his friend’s Virginia Beach apartment, Wright’s absence was beginning to register. The friend with whom he’d been watching movies began to look for him.
In the kitchen, uncooked pizza rolls sat on top of an oven that was left on. The only signs of Wright were his backpack and sandals. His phone and truck were gone. He hadn’t said goodbye. The friend finally texted Wright at 10:32 p.m.:
“Where are you??”
Wright never saw the message.
Around 10 p.m., a Virginia Beach police officer pulled up to Oceana’s open main gate off Tomcat Drive to ask base security personnel if they’d seen a damaged black Dodge Ram pickup and advise them to be on the lookout.
Minutes later, another Beach police officer and an Uber driver arrived with an update.
The Uber had been bringing two Marines back to base and had stopped about 15 feet in front of the shuttered back gate, pulling up directions on his phone. One of the Marines noticed that the gate looked as if it was about to "fall over" but didn't think much of it because Oceana "was old and everything already appeared rundown," according to the report.
Then they heard the roar. A pickup blew past them, barreling through chain-link fencing and snapping wooden drop arms in a vehicle inspection lane before driving out of sight. One of the Marines called 911.
Police would later find Wright’s Colorado license plate amid the rubble and conclude he struck the gate twice. The Uber driver said he never saw brake lights.
“It was obvious this was not an accidental intrusion,” the Uber driver wrote in a voluntary statement for NCIS later that night. “I do not believe he even braked.”
As military police were learning about a gate runner, a call for help came in to Navy 911 from Hangar 111.
A lone female watchstander from VFA-81, Wright’s squadron, had just finished dinner and was watching "Law & Order" on the second floor when the yelling and slamming began. The commotion sounded like a joke or a drill, but as Wright advanced up the stairs she realized it was neither. She hid under a desk in a briefing room.
She said the man “sounded intoxicated” and “was kind of slurring his words.”
Wright entered and stood above the desk, slamming his hands on its top. He called the woman a “motherf--ker” and warned her to “stay down.”
“I was scared for my life,” the woman later told NCIS. “I thought I was going to die. I thought he was going to hurt me. I figured he was so angry at the world he might have taken it out on the next person he saw. I did think he had a weapon. The dispatcher asked if he had a weapon and I think I said I didn’t know.”
When Wright left the room, the woman called base 911. A transcript of the woman’s 18-minute phone call describes the sound of shattering glass and banging in the distance as she waited for help.
“Oh my god,” she said. “He’s breaking everything.”
Oceana police were alerted to the woman’s duress call five minutes after it came in. Military police driving to investigate the breach at Gate 2 hung a U-turn on Hornet Drive and headed back toward Hangar 111.
Outside the hangar’s fence, which provides an additional layer of security before the flight line, they found Wright’s pickup running with its flashers on.
Officers could hear banging and yelling inside, and what sounded like gunshots. Two of the masters at arms went in; a third stayed behind with the truck.
Officers found Wright in a stairwell. They yelled for him to get down or to turn and show his hands, according to the report. What happened next was a "split second decision," one of the masters at arms later told NCIS.
“I thought he had a gun and he was shooting people,” he said.
The MA got his first glimpse of Wright as he "backed up" on the steps. He could not see Wright’s hands and only half his body was visible, but he said he saw him “open up to the right." He fired one shot at Wright before the sailor made his way through a doorway on to the second floor.
That’s where they found Wright, unarmed, wearing basketball shorts, lying face down in a pool of blood. Later, the MA realized the banging he heard was Wright "slamming the door," he told NCIS.
It was 10:26 p.m., less than an hour after Wright sent his message to dozens of friends urging them to enjoy the life they had.
Oceana’s Gate 2 sits far down Hornet Drive, not easily visible from where that road veers off from London Bridge Road in a remote section of the base.
Still photos of security camera footage and timelines included in the NCIS report indicate that Wright breached the gate seconds after 10 p.m. More than eight minutes later, a Virginia Beach police cruiser pulled up.
Bouchard, the former Naval Station Norfolk commander who now works as an independent security and emergency preparedness consultant, called that lapse “unsatisfactory.” Someone with real motive “could have damaged a lot of aircraft, could have killed a lot of people, if he knew what building to go to,” he said.
“The security camera at Gate 2 appears not to have been monitored in real time in the base security command center, or the watch standers were not paying attention to the cameras,” Bouchard said in an email after reviewing sections of the NCIS report.
Vincelette, Oceana’s commanding officer, and Navy Region Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Beth Baker would not discuss specific security protocols at the gate that night or detail any changes made since the breach. Baker said no one had been reprimanded.
“We continually review all the security processes and procedures at Oceana and when we see something that needs to be changed, we’ll do it,” Vincelette said. “The public can be comforted that we are taking care of the base and that the base is secure.”
Where Bouchard noted the time lapse between Wright’s breach and police discovery of it, Vincelette called it “somewhat reasonable.”
“Would we have liked it to have been faster? Yes,” he said.
Bridget Wright, Colton's mother, said she wonders if the Navy followed proper procedures when it closed the gate that night. She said she finds it hard to believe that no cameras at the gate were being monitored in real time.
"You are military," she said. "You're gonna have cameras inside and out. And if you don't, then there's something wrong with that."
Bouchard also faulted the physical security around Gate 2.
“The only way to have prevented the incident at Hangar 111 that resulted in Seaman Wright’s death was to stop his vehicle before it reached the hangar,” Bouchard wrote. “On the night of the incident, NASO did not have the ability to do that.”
Wright died at 12:09 a.m. that night at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital. His death is listed as homicide as a result of a gunshot wound to the chest, Donna Price, an office administrator for the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said.
Wright’s blood alcohol content was 0.215, almost three times the legal limit, according to NCIS. He put up such a struggle with first responders and hospital staff that several told NCIS they wondered if he had been under the influence of something other than alcohol. The Navy ordered additional tests for the presence of synthetic marijuana and bath salts; no drugs were detected.
The Navy considered charging the master-at-arms who killed Wright with voluntary manslaughter but decided not to. Vincelette said the man is still in the Navy but is no longer working at Oceana as a result of normal duty station rotations. Reviews of the MA’s actions that night found that he acted “reasonably based on the circumstances,” Vincelette said.
The combination of alcohol and the hit-and-runs left several people to speculate to NCIS about why Wright acted so violently on base. Perhaps he “freaked out” when he hit other vehicles and figured his military career was over, some said. Even the watch stander, who later learned Wright's identity and spoke highly of him to NCIS, seemed baffled.
"I think it was just one mistake after another and he didn't know what to do," she said.
More than a year and half after her son's death, Bridget Wright can't bring herself to read NCIS' full report; the idea gives her panic attacks.
She said she never learned the identity of the sailor who shot her son and has not spoken with the men whose apartment he was at that night.
The lack of answers has left her to come up with a variety of scenarios, including some in which Colton's death is part of a larger Navy cover-up. In one, he's the target of a setup by another sailor, who is jealous of his success. In another, he's not the driver of the truck but a passenger who is left behind, drunk and disoriented and forced to answer for the crimes of another.
Colton had just bought the pickup during a return trip to Colorado, Bridget Wright said. He was so proud of it that the afternoon he bought it, he picked up his mother and took her for a ride. If he crashed the back gate with it, why didn't he also blast his way through fencing that surrounded his hangar, she wondered.
And, why did he leave his friend's apartment to begin with? He brought his backpack, a signal that he'd planned to stay the night.
"I just know that it's not my son," she said. "He doesn't do stuff like that."
Wright's wallet was found in his truck, along with his phone. Why didn't the master-at-arms who stayed behind with the vehicle find it and radio a message to those in the hanger that he was one of theirs? Why didn't they tase him instead? How did the shooter not see her son's hands, if he was turning and pushing through a door on the stairwell from a landing above them?
All of these questions and no closure.
"Why did they have to shoot him?" she asked.
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