Secret Sandia settlement taps taxpayers
Larry Barker Investigates
It was February 2006, a dark and bitter night in the rugged Alaskan back country. What followed the launch was an incident so foolhardy and so reckless that it literally ruined lives.
It is also something the government kept quiet for three years.
"We had a very tragic and unfortunate incident that happened in Alaska," Dr. Al Romig, Sandia chief operating officer, told KRQE News 13.
Kodiak Island is a remote sportsman's paradise, and it was there that Sandia engineers from New Mexico tested a secret missile radar system. But it wasn't rocket science that got Sandians in trouble.
The successful liftoff wrapped up weeks of research. Sandia's engineers worked hard, and then they played hard.
They celebrated with a big party back at the Narrow Cape Lodge that went on much of the day. There were speeches, champagne toasts, chips and salsa and booze, lots of it.
One top Sandia engineer was described as being tipsy, swaying and slurring his speech.
Post-launch bashes are a Sandia tradition. On Kodiak they partied with beer, champagne, whiskey, vodka, rum and wine.
What happened next is documented by an internal investigation obtained by News 13 investigative reporter Larry Barker. The report so sensitive, the lab won't make it public.
Late in the afternoon, the Sandians moved their celebration to the beach. Josh Lucas, 29, and two others hopped into a government Jeep for a little joy ride
Lucas later said he drove onto the sand looking for firewood and to go four wheeling. But their fun was cut short when the Jeep got stuck in the seaside muck.
"Diana Helgeson and myself are avid four wheelers and thought we had the situation under control," Lucas told Alaska State Troopers in a recorded statement. "I ended up getting stuck in the sand. I was screwing around. So we walked back to the lodge."
Lucas, Helgeson and Dave Stokebrand returned to retrieve the abandoned vehicle with Lucas again driving. He was tired, had been drinking, and he was driving too fast in the dark.
Lucas hit a ravine, launched through the air and slammed into the pit.
In the pitch black Helgeson and Stokebrand were unconscious. Lucas, his broken arm, ran the half mile back to the lodge for help.
Witnesses described Lucas as hysterical and the scene at the lodge chaotic.
"Along comes Josh. and he's yelling and screaming from hundreds of yards away," Eric Schindwolf said in statement to Alaska troopers. "He's yelling, 'We need help out here; we need emergency medical.'
"He was just trying to get somebody to pay attention."
Helgeson and Stokebrand suffered critical injuries and were airlifted to a hospital by Coast Guard helicopter. Alaskan police launched an investigation.
"When the troopers arrived we pretty much had chaos trying to figure who were the injured, who were involved, who were people that were there to help," Sgt. Maurice "Mo" Hughes of the Alaska State Troopers post on Kodiak Island said in an interview with News 13. "Alcohol had a component in this incident. People that were unfamiliar with the location, the time of day--it was dark--factor of alcohol and potentially being tired.
"All those can build up very quickly to disaster. In this case it did."
Lucas was charged with two counts first-degree assault and driving while intoxicated. The criminal case was turned over to the Kodiak district attorney.
Either the crime was reckless or negligent, but either way conviction could result in a prison sentence, according to District Attorney Mike Gray.
Helgeson suffered multiple injuries including severe head trauma that left her permanently disabled. Her 20-year career at Sandia is over.
The crash cut short Stokebrand's 17 years as a Sandia engineer. He has significant brain damage and today requires around-the-clock care.
Sandia attorneys concluded if there were a lawsuit a jury could find labs liable for substantial damages, as much as $2 million to Helgeson and as much as $10 million to Stokebrand.
Last year Sandia quietly reached a settlement with the injured employees and then stuck the taxpayers with the bill. The Department of Energy confirmed government funds were used to pay for what happened in Alaska.
Taxpayers are on the hook for what is likely to be millions of dollars although exactly how much is not known. The lab said it's a secret and won't discuss either the decision to settle or the terms of the settlement.
"We don't discuss legal matters involving the laboratory," Romig said. "Those (terms) are protected by confidentiality agreements."
So what went wrong in Alaska? Sandia said its chief operating officer would answer News 13's questions.
Romig, however, declined to characterize Lucas's actions that night.
"I wasn't there to observe what Josh Lucas did or didn't do," he said. "I wasn't at the party. I didn't see Josh Lucas. I wasn't on scene to observe it."
But Romig does know what happened and conceded he read Sandia's detailed report on the incident. Still he ducked a question on whether he believed the investigation showed Lucas acted recklessly when he got behind the wheel of a government Jeep after drinking to go four wheeling on the beach.
"Sandia doesn't discuss the contents of its internal investigations," he said.
Nor would Romig comment on whether Sandia employees acted in a responsible manner.
"It's difficult to say that based on reading the report; I wasn't there," Romig continued. "There was an accident that was unfortunate.
"Sandia has taken corrective actions to try and prevent those things from happening again in the future."
Lucas still works at Sandia labs and wasn't prosecuted in Alaska where the Kodiak District Attorney changed his mind after consulting with victims.
News 13 approached Lucas at his home about getting his side of the story but was rebuffed.
"You can stop right there," he said. "Get off my property."
Trooper Hughes offered one summation for the combination of four-wheeling on an unknown beach in the dark while fatigued and after drinking. "Made for a very bad night," he said.