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Pilot in Shootings Charged with Dereliction, Homicide

By John F. Harris
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

An Air Force F-15 pilot involved in the fatal shootings of two Army helicopters over northern Iraq last April was charged by military authorities Thursday with two counts of dereliction of duty and 26 counts of negligent homicide - one for each of those who lost their lives.

Air Force Lt. Col. Randy W. May, who is based in Germany and was identified as the pilot for the first time, could be sent to prison for a year for each of the negligent homicide charges if he is convicted at a court martial. Pentagon spokesmen said they believed such a sentence would be among the most severe ever for a friendly-fire incident.

May admitted to investigators that he carried through with an attack even though he had not positively identified two helicopters that turned out to be friendly. He and others told investigators last spring the shootdown was an honest mistake, the result of a tangled series of misunderstandings and procedural breakdowns involving many different people.

But military analysts said Thursday's charges are a clear sign that Air Force commanders intend to hold specific individuals directly accountable.

Also charged with numerous counts of dereliction of duty Thursday were five crew members of an airborne radar plane patrolling the skies over Iraq on April 14. Investigators concluded they could have averted the shootdowns of the two Army Black Hawks if they had been controlling the air space more attentively.

The charges against the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) crew had been expected since late last month, when a review board made its recommendations to Lt. Gen. Stephen Croker, commander of the 8th Air Force.

In May's case, a similar group made recommendations to Maj. Gen. Eugene Santarelli, the commander of the 17th Air Force in Germany, where May is stationed. Santarelli is still considering the fate of the other F-15 pilot involved in the shoot down.

Fifteen U.S. citizens and 11 foreign nationals were killed in the shootings. According to transcripts of interviews with May conducted during the inquiry, he acknowledged he bore blame for the tragedy but also said others had a share.

"I accept responsibility for the role that I played in this tragic accident," May said. "Knowing my actions have caused not only needless loss of life, but also much pain and suffering for others, is something which will always haunt me."

While startling because of the severity of the charges, Thursday's developments are simply the start of the military judicial process - the equivalent of being arrested by a civilian police officer. The next step is that the charged individuals will be given an "Article 32" hearing, which is roughly similar to a civilian grand-jury proceeding.

At least two military judges will be appointed - one for the F-15 pilot, another for the AWACS crew - to serve as Article 32 officers. They will hold public hearings to determine if there is enough cause to recommend initiating a formal court martial or impose less-serious administrative punishment. Those recommendations will be taken back to Santarelli and Croker, who then decide whether to convene a court martial or take other action.

The AWACS crew members charged were Maj. Douglas L. Martin, stationed with the Air Combat Command Air Operations Squadron at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia; and Maj. Lawrence M. Tracey, Cpt. Jim Wang, 1st Lt. Joseph M. Halcli, and 2nd Lt. Ricky L. Wilson, all based at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

The F-15 pilots told investigators they thought they were firing at Iraqi helicopters violating an allied ban on flights over a safe zone established at the end of the Persian Gulf War to protect Iraq's persecuted Kurdish minority. The Black Hawk helicopters, carrying a delegation of U.S. and allied officials on a trip to Kurdish villages, looked like Soviet-built Hind helicopters of the kind Iraq owns, the pilots said.

But May made a critical error, according to an Air Force officer. He was flying as wingman in the two-man formation when the lead pilot called out that he had visually identified two Hinds, and asked May to confirm the identification.

May then called out "Tally Two" on his radio, which the lead pilot took as confirmation. First the lead pilot, then May, fired missiles that blew the Black Hawks from the sky.

In fact, May later told investigators he never clearly saw the helicopters before calling "Tally Two." "I did not identify them as friendly; I did not identify them as hostile," according to a transcript of his interview with investigators. "I expected to see Hinds based on the call my flight leader had made. I didn't see anything that disputed that."