A car theft suspect was booked on suspicion of murder Wednesday in the deaths of two Costa Mesa police officers and a civilian observer killed Tuesday night when two police helicopters collided over Irvine.
The helicopters were participating in the high-speed chase of an allegedly stolen car when they came together 500 feet over a field near the UC Irvine campus at 10:20 p.m. A preliminary investigation showed that the skid of the smaller Newport Beach helicopter made contact with the main rotor blade of the Costa Mesa aircraft, said Gary Mucho, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board's Los Angeles office.
The accident, which cast a pall over the Costa Mesa Police Department, was the first midair collision of law enforcement helicopters in Southern California. Police helicopter crews fly under so-called visual flight rules, requiring them to look out for other aircraft during airborne pursuits. Unlike fixed-wing planes, they are not subject to FAA regulation.
Costa Mesa Mayor Donn Hall declined to answer questions about whether the City Council would review the Police Department's helicopter policy. "Our main concern now is for the well-being of the families," he said.
Preliminary findings by the NTSB, which was called in by police to investigate the collision, showed no evidence of mechanical problems with either aircraft.
Authorities said Wednesday that the Costa Mesa aircraft was about to hand over pursuit of the stolen car to the Newport Beach copter.
Investigators, who spent Tuesday night and early Wednesday interviewing witnesses to the crash, said they would set aside time today to talk to the two Newport Beach officers who survived. "We usually try and get to them as soon as possible, but we are trying to understand their predicament and let them settle down," Mucho said. "They were pretty shaken up. It's a pretty close fraternity as far as the flying law enforcement community."
Their smaller, Hughes 300C, two-seat helicopter crash-landed about a quarter mile from the Costa Mesa aircraft.
Costa Mesa Police Officers John William (Mike) Libolt, 39, and James David Ketchum, 39, were killed in the fiery crash of their four-seat Hughes 500E turbine helicopter in undeveloped rolling hills near Bonita Canyon Road, less than 1,000 yards from faculty and student housing at UC Irvine. Libolt and Ketchum, both Costa Mesa residents, were pilots with about 3,000 and 3,500 flight hours respectively. They were the first Costa Mesa police officers killed in the line of duty.
Costa Mesa police late Wednesday identified the third victim of the midair collision as Jeffery Pollard, 27, a civilian flight instructor from Tustin.
All three men were crushed when their copter slammed into the ground, Mucho said.
The two Newport Beach officers were pilot Robert Oakley, 35, and Myles Elsing, 40, a pilot who was riding as observer. They were hospitalized Tuesday night at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana with what police described as non-life-threatening injuries. Oakley was released Wednesday. Elsing was described as in good condition but being held in the intensive care ward for observation. He may be released today, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Vincent William Acosta, 19, an unemployed Anaheim construction worker, was booked on suspicion of murder and other charges at Orange County Jail and held on $250,000 bail. Police said murder charges are justified when someone is killed during the commission of another crime, in this case, auto theft.
Police said Wednesday that they like to use helicopters in auto chases to make driving safer for gound units, which can reduce their own speed as the aircraft track the target.
"In a pursuit, we will involve a helicopter every time we can because when you involve a helicopter, you are reducing the threat (to) life or property," said Newport Police spokesman Kent Stoddard.
Libolt, who was divorced, is survived by a daughter, Katie, 15, a son, David, 19, his parents and four sisters. For the last four or five years, said his agent, Vivienne McIntosh, Libolt had worked part time as a model for fashion catalogs and department store ads.
Ketchum is survived by his wife, Meg, and daughters Hilary, 13, and Penny, 12.
Meg Ketchum said she was on a break at her job as an AirCal reservations clerk when she learned of the crash on the news.
"I kept thinking it wouldn't be David; it would be someone else, and the news didn't know what was going on," she recalled in her living room Wednesday night, surrounded by friends from the police force. "I called Dave (Lt. Dave Brooks, the watch commander) and said 'Dave, tell me what you know,' and he told me that there were two dead and one was my husband."
She said she knew that if her husband's helicopter ever did crash, he probably would not walk away from it. But she worried less about him up in the air than when he was on the ground. "When he used to come home from the detectives bureau, he was so stressed out," she said. "He loved his job."