Friday, Jan. 23, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Las Vegan Justin Price won’t be court martialed in connection with a fire that damaged a Predator drone at an air base in Iraq, military authorities said Thursday.
The decision was made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates — eight days ago.
But it was unclear whether word has reached Price. His wife and his lawyers didn’t know until the Sun told them Thursday.
The reason for the lapse went unexplained.
Lt. Col. Todd McDowell, spokesman for Air Force headquarters, said the commanders in Iraq now know about Gate’s order and are making arrangements for Price to return home.
The Sun wrote about Price’s case in Thursday’s newspaper. Lawyers for the 29-year-old aircraft mechanic were contesting the threatened court martial, claiming it was unconstitutional for the military to prosecute a civilian.
Gates’ media affairs office on Thursday wasn’t immediately able to answer questions about the status of the case, but Price’s defense lawyers said military prosecutors had told them charges of arson and reckless endangerment would be filed soon.
On Thursday, Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for Gates, told the Sun the defense secretary had pulled the plug on a court martial. He did not explain the reasons behind Gates’ decision. The Justice Department previously decided to not pursue charges against Price, citing lack of evidence.
Calene Price said she is excited at the news her husband is coming home soon, but “not until I see him at the airport will I be totally relieved.”
Details of the incident that put Price in the hot seat have been sketchy at best.
Calene Price said her husband told her the fire was an accident, but she doesn’t know any more than that. Price’s lawyers declined to fill in the gaps in advance of a trial.
This much was revealed in court filings challenging the court martial: On Nov. 17, Price and three other employees of the Las Vegas-based Battlespace Flight Services were working on a Predator when a fire started underneath the drone. It was quickly extinguished, but the exterior of the aircraft was damaged. The fire was first investigated for safety reasons, but after statements from all four employees were obtained, a criminal investigation was opened into Price’s actions. He was being investigated for possible arson and reckless endangerment and has been held at the base on pretrial restriction since Nov. 21.
Price, who had been in Iraq since September doing maintenance work on the Predators, is still employed by Battlespace but was assigned desk work, according to his wife. The company has been supportive of him through the ordeal, she said.
Price’s defense lawyers said they still don’t have official word that he won’t be prosecuted in military court.
Under the military code of justice, if a civilian serving with the armed forces in a military operation is accused of a crime, the case must first be sent to the Justice Department, as Price’s was on Dec. 8. Eleven days later the Justice Department declined to prosecute Price.
The Air Force’s efforts to try Price in military court were halted by Gates’ order on Jan. 15.
Price’s lawyers filed a petition in federal court last week challenging the court martial as unconstitutional. The case, which is now most likely moot, would have been the first test of a 2006 amendment extending the military’s jurisdiction over civilians.