A military hearing officer has recommended a special court-martial for a Tustin-based Marine helicopter crew chief under investigation for allegedly tampering with aircraft switches and instruments, officials said Monday.
Cpl. Kirk Hill faces additional charges of using marijuana and disobeying orders by placing a foreign substance into a urine sample bottle during a squadron drug sweep last month, said Kevin B. McDermott, the civilian Santa Ana lawyer who represents Hill.
A hearing on the drug charges is scheduled for Feb. 11, McDermott said.
Hill admitted in a preliminary hearing last month that he "cross-connected" switches in a CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter to prove that pilots were flying the aircraft even when they knew the copters were unsafe.
The hearing at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station was the equivalent to a civilian grand jury proceeding to determine whether there is enough evidence to try Hill on charges.
McDermott said the recommendation by hearing officer Capt. Thomas Scully for a special, rather than general, court-martial, was good news for his client.
Under a general court-martial conviction (the equivalent of a felony), Hill could be sentenced to up to 10 years in the brig, with a dishonorable discharge. Conviction under a special court-martial, McDermott said, could mean up to six months in the brig at Camp Pendleton for Hill and a bad-conduct discharge.
If Scully's commanding officers accept the recommendation, a trial date will be scheduled.
During the hearing, Hill admitted that he switched the plugs governing parts of the helicopter's automatic flight control system, which is comparable to an automobile's power steering.
The cross-connection, which in itself did not endanger the helicopter, was detected by the helicopter's pilots in a preflight check before the aircraft was airborne. But it was decided that the aircraft could take off anyway because other instrument checks showed there was nothing wrong with the flight control system.
When the 45-minute flight was over, the pilots reported the malfunction spotted during the preflight check.