INTO THE BONFIRE

A Few Not So Good Men: Marine Pilots, a Massacre, Immunity

They served only 19 weeks in prison for killing 20 Alpine tourists. The Marine who advised them to burn the videotaped evidence was promoted to colonel.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Two decades have passed since the Cavalese cable-car disaster, in which a U.S. Marine Corps airplane severed a gondola cable and sent 20 people plummeting to their deaths on a ski slope in the Italian Alps.

For the families of the dead, the grief lingers on. So do the questions: How did the American pilots collectively serve only four months in military prison despite being court-martialed twice for the accident and coverup? And how did a Marine officer, who advised the pilots to destroy a videotape of that flight, avoid punishment and resume his rise to colonel?

On the sunny morning of Feb. 3, 1998, in the Dolomite mountains outside the Italian town of Cavalese, four Marine officers were on a training mission in a Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler, a four-seat aircraft designed for electronic warfare. Over a ski resort, while the pilots performed low-altitude flight maneuvers for fun, the plane struck the cable supporting a bright yellow gondola car. The victims inside free-fell 260 feet onto rocks and snow.

The “Strage del Cermis” (Italian for “Massacre of Cermis”), named for the mountain ridge where the bodies were recovered, claimed the lives of eight Germans, five Belgians, three Italians, two Poles, one Dutch citizen, and one Austrian.

The plane was manned by Marine Capt. Richard Ashby, a 30-year-old on his final training flight before promotion to fighter pilot, and Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, a navigator with a decade of flight experience. Capt. William Raney and Capt. Chandler Seagraves, electronic-warfare officers, were in the back seats.

Seagraves was a member of the incoming unit that was scheduled to replace Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron-2 in Aviano, so he was less familiar with the other three Marines on board. He joined the ill-fated flight at the last minute for training in low-altitude flying.

During the flight, Schweitzer borrowed Ashby’s handheld videocamera to record his swan song—his last aerial navigation as a Marine Corps pilot before he left the military. Schweitzer testified that he had intended to show the video to his kids someday.

The plane lost contact with ground radar at 3:06 p.m. due to its low altitude, and Schweitzer testified that the video showed him smiling right up until 3:12 p.m., when the plane hit the gondola cable.

After hitting the cable, the pilots saw the gondola fall but continued their flight. They landed the damaged Prowler safely at a NATO base in Aviano, in northern Italy. Court documents show that as Raney and Seagraves got off the plane, Schweitzer and Ashby remained behind, took the borrowed camcorder videotape of the flight, then replaced it with a blank tape.

Italian officials spent the day and night recovering the remains of 20 people on a snowy ridge stained red. Grisly photos of the crushed gondola appeared in newspapers around the world. The Italian government launched a criminal investigation, and the Marine Corps followed suit.

As Schweitzer and Ashby walked to the mess hall a few days after the accident, they asked Seagraves’ advice on handling questions about the videotape, according to court documents. Seagraves testified that he counseled the pilots to “get rid of the videotape. If it were mine, I would get rid of it.”

Court documents show that Ashby gave Schweitzer the videotape, and Schweitzer took it outside behind a bar and threw it into a bonfire, despite “knowing that Italian and United States military criminal investigators would have wanted to view it,” according to his testimony (PDF).

Get rid of the videotape. If it were mine, I would get rid of it.
Capt. Chandler Seagraves in court testimony
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Initially, all four men were charged with crimes and Ashby, who had been at the controls, faced a total of more than 200 years in a military prison. Schweitzer and Ashby were recommended for general court-martial at Camp Lejeune on 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. Italian authorities did not have jurisdiction to formally charge the crew members under NATO treaty rules.

During the captains’ court-martial, defense lawyers argued the flight crew was not given the most recent flight directives or maps that marked the location of the cable lines, and that the plane’s altimeter malfunctioned.

The pilots’ acquittal sparked outrage and condemnation from Italian officials and strained relations between the U. S. and its NATO ally.

The plane’s pilot and navigator, Ashby and Schweitzer, were court-martialed again in May 1999 on charges of obstructing justice by destroying the videotape recorded during the flight. Guilty verdicts pushed Ashby and Schweitzer out of the Marine Corps, and Ashby served four months of a six-month term in military prison before his release on good behavior.

Italy paid a total of $39.3 million for the families of the dead, who received $1.9 million per victim. The U.S. Congress rejected a bill introduced by late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond that would have established $40 million in compensation funds for the families. But under NATO treaty rules, the U.S. was compelled to send Italy $28.5 million in victim compensation.

Ashby and Schweitzer maintained that they had seen neither the new directives nor the updated government maps. Seagraves and Raney testified that the altitude gauge did not trigger after the plane entered the Cermis valley, even though Ashby, the pilot, had set the indicator to go off when they dropped below 800 feet, according to the Associated Press.

The crew members’ testimony at trial contradicted U.S. documents published in July 2011 by the Italian daily La Stampa.

The newspaper said these previously classified documents were from a U.S.-led investigation dated March 1998, a month after the incident. It reported that they were certified by then-Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, who would later serve as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The documents cited by La Stampa showed that investigators testified they found a letter in the cockpit of the Prowler containing the new directives, along with maps marking the gondola cables. Prior to the accident, the paper reported, the crew received warnings for “Top Gun antics” such as barrel rolls and flying underneath other gondola cables.

The investigation’s partially redacted pages blamed the Marine pilots for the tragedy and advised the United States to take full responsibility for paying restitution to the victims’ families, La Stampa reported. The paper added that investigators found compelling evidence refuting the crew members’ claims regarding old maps and missed flight directives that eventually led to Schweitzer and Ashby’s acquittal on the most severe charges.

Italian officials spent the day and night recovering the remains of 20 people on a snowy ridge stained red.

La Stampa initially said it got the investigation documents from the U.S. National Archives, but the paper later amended that to say only that it acquired the documents in accordance with U.S. law. The Daily Beast filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the National Archives for the investigation documents, but on Feb. 1 the Archives responded, “We were unable to locate the records you have requested among our holdings.”

The original joint investigation, led by Marine Gen. Michael Delong and Italian colonels Orfeo Durigon and Fermo Missarino, explained that Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron Two deployed to Aviano in August 1997 to counter the Bosnian Serb Army’s aggressive actions in United Nations safe zones. (This was after the Dayton peace accords, and before the Kosovo War, which was conducted by NATO almost exclusively from the air.)

That same month the Italian government published new directives forbidding flights below 2,000 feet in the Trentino Alto Adige area. La Stampa reported that in the months before the February accident, all four of the Marine officers received copies of the new flight directives and updated maps that marked the location of the gondola cables.

During the first trial, prosecutors claimed Ashby violated Marine Corps policy by exceeding the 517 mph speed limit and flying well below a 2,000-foot altitude restriction. The Prowler was going 621 mph when it cut the supporting cable lines 370 feet above the ground, according to court transcripts.

Court transcripts quote Col. Carol K. Joyce, head of the prosecution team and then a lieutenant colonel, saying, “a crew member in the back seat would testify that Ashby did a barrel roll.”

The Daily Beast interviewed retired Maj. Raney and then-Capt. Schweitzer about the La Stampa claims. Both crew members denied having seen or read the new directives or maps marking the location of the cable-car lines.

“No, we absolutely did not have charts with the cables marked on them,” Raney said. “The Italians had the cables marked on their maps, but we did not… and there was a two-star [general] who flat out lied about it in a press conference.

“When Maj. Gen. Delong [the chief investigator] announced the findings of the investigation board, he said the maps were marked,” Raney continued. “But that was a lie, a flat out lie.”

The Daily Beast attempted to contact Maj. Gen. Delong for comment, but he did not respond.

Seagraves, the late addition to the flight, received immunity on condition he reveal the “truth about everything” during the initial Marine Corps investigation and court-martial. In 2015, he was promoted to colonel, reigniting the issue of his lack of a formal reprimand for advising the pilots to destroy the tape. He began transitioning to retirement from the Marine Corps in November 2017.

Retired Marine Corps Judge Advocate James Weirick told The Daily Beast he was “surprised” to hear that Seagraves had been promoted to colonel in 2015, due to his role in the destruction of evidence.

Along the way, Seagraves was also selected for some of the most prestigious billets in the U.S. Military, including director of Electronic Warfare Training at Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO); the Marine commandant’s senior fellow at the Brookings Institute; and events coordinator for the “Blue Angels” Naval Flight Demonstration Squadron. He is now the CEO of the Marine Corps’  Installation Headquarters Group in North Carolina.

“The grant of immunity protected then-Capt. Seagraves from criminal prosecution by the Marine Corps for his involvement in the destruction of the videotape,” Weirick said, “but that immunity grant does not preclude the Marine Corps from ensuring his actions were made part of his record. At minimum, his actions would warrant inclusion in a fitness report.”

The Prowler’s other crew members said Seagraves deserved his promotion to colonel, and that he didn’t seek immunity during the investigation.

“What the media never got to and what is not well known was neither Seagraves or myself accepted immunity on our own accord,” Raney told The Daily Beast. “We were told at the get-go that if you testify this, then they will give you immunity—which is illegal, you can’t do that, because they were asking us to testify to things that were not true.”

The crew members told The Daily Beast that they were given written orders from then Lt. Col. Richard A. Muegge to testify, and that in so doing they were “immune” and could no longer incriminate themselves. Muegge was later relieved of command for supervisory error.

“You know, this is a situation that I like to call the unbelievable, unimaginable, unexpected moments that training just can’t prepare you for,” Schweitzer said. “I got rid of the tape, not because of the flight, but because that was my worst nightmare… I didn’t want to look at my smiling face while flying a low-altitude flight, which was something I loved to do—and then all of a sudden, tragedy.”

The Daily Beast attempted to contact Seagraves recently, as he is transitioning to retirement, but received no response.

In a 2015 email to The Daily Beast via a public-affairs spokesperson, he wrote that the Cavalese cable-car incident has been fully investigated, but he also offered his condolences.

“I would like to extend my heartfelt sympathies to everyone affected by this tragedy,” he wrote.