Widows sue over troopers killed in Virginia helicopter crash

Virginia State Police Trooper Lt. H. Jay Cullen (L) and State Trooper Berke Bates (R) were...
Virginia State Police Trooper Lt. H. Jay Cullen (L) and State Trooper Berke Bates (R) were killed Saturday when the helicopter they were piloting crashed(WHSV)
Published: Aug. 14, 2019 at 12:07 PM EDT
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The widows of two Virginia state troopers killed in a helicopter crash the day of a violent white nationalist rally have sued the state and others over their husbands' deaths, alleging the aircraft was not properly maintained or repaired.

Amanda Bates and Karen Cullen filed wrongful death lawsuits Monday. Both are seeking around $50 million in damages for the "unrelenting grief" and financial losses their families have sustained since the crash of the helicopter, which their lawsuits describe as a "maintenance nightmare."

H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates were aboard the Bell 407 single-engine helicopter on Aug. 12, 2017, to provide video surveillance of public demonstrations in Charlottesville. The "Unite the Right" white nationalist rally had drawn hundreds of members of far-right groups to the city, and violence erupted between them and anti-racism counterprotesters.

Cullen and Bates captured video of the moment an avowed white supremacist plowed a car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, killing a woman and injuring dozens more. The video was used in court proceedings against James Fields, who has since been convicted on murder, hate crime and other charges.

The helicopter then left after being reassigned to help oversee then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe's motorcade. Within minutes, there was a 911 call reporting the fiery crash. Witnesses said the aircraft began to spin as it descended, according to a preliminary report from federal transportation safety investigators that also said the helicopter left a debris field several hundred feet long.

The widows' lawsuits, filed against the state, the Secretariat of Public Safety and Homeland Security, and state police, say the troopers' fear would have been "unspeakable" and that there was nothing either man could have done to save themselves.

The helicopter was a "maintenance nightmare" with a history of malfunctions, the lawsuits say.

Among the issues alleged: operational difficulties with the engine and fuel control; flight control malfunctions requiring "constant inspection, disassembly and maintenance"; and an "inadequately designed" tail boom.

The lawsuits also allege the state failed to follow and implement maintenance manuals and checklists; to evaluate the helicopter for its airworthiness; and to issue adequate instructions for flight crews to cope with emergencies.

Corinne Geller, a state police spokeswoman, and Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam, said they couldn't comment on pending litigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the crash. A final report is expected next year. A preliminary report did not cite a likely cause.

The Associated Press has previously reported that the helicopter was heavily damaged in 2010 when it lost engine power and was forced to make a hard landing.

Geller has said the aircraft was fully repaired.

Separately, the widows also filed wrongful death lawsuits in June against Rolls Royce Corp., which made the engine used in the helicopter,