LEMOORE – The biggest news story out of Lemoore this year didn’t involve the city.
It was a crash at Naval Air Station Lemoore that raised a lot of questions about security at the Navy jet base, led to a full-blown investigation and prompted changes to try to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated in the future.
An unauthorized Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV being pursued by the California Highway Patrol was able to enter the secure jet operations area and crash into a parked F-18 on the flight tarmac on March 30-31, 2016.
The crash, which happened just after midnight, killed Anthony Castillo, the driver of the SUV, and Melissa Miller, the vehicle’s only passenger.
Autopsy results revealed that Castillo had high levels of methamphetamine in his system. In addition, Castillo had morphine and marijuana in his blood. Marijuana was also found in the SUV.
The crash was an accident that began when a CHP officer pulled his car behind the SUV, which was parked on the shoulder of Jackson Avenue at about 11:38 p.m.
When the officer turned his spotlights on, the Grand Cherokee took off westbound on Jackson Avenue. The officer pursued.
The Jeep was reportedly weaving and crossing the center line as it took off "at a high rate of speed," according to a CHP press release.
When the vehicle reached Avenal Cutoff Road, it entered Highway 198 traveling west but driving the wrong way in the eastbound lanes. The driver then veered the Jeep over into the westbound lanes before turning right at the stoplight that marks the main NASL entrance.
Hanford CHP Spokesman John Tyler said the Grand Cherokee topped 100 mph on Highway 198. He said NASL personnel were notified of the chase when the Jeep was on Highway 198.
Instead of going through the manned entrance checkpoint to get onto the residential part of NASL, the vehicle veered left onto a paved bypass road that becomes Reeves Boulevard, a public road that leads to the operations part of the base where the runways, hangars and jets are located.
The Jeep went more than five miles north before reaching a manned checkpoint. The Jeep blasted past the checkpoint, which has three lanes for incoming traffic.
Hydraulic concrete barriers that raise up from the ground and are designed to stop such incursions were deployed after the Grand Cherokee had already passed through.
A subsequent Navy investigation revealed the CHP officials repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to notify NASL personnel that the pursuit had gone onto base.
Sailors at the checkpoint didn’t know about the SUV until a CHP officer tracking the SUV drove up to the checkpoint booth and informed them.
Prior to that, the CHP officer had slowed down and lost sight of the Grand Cherokee. The investigation report stated that the officer slowed down because he was unsure about security protocol on the base.
CHP officials were calling an active number that had been provided to them for the base.
Nobody picked up the phone, according to the investigation report.
CHP officials then tried a backup number three times, but that didn’t work either. The report stated that, at one point, the phone rang for 2 minutes and 20 seconds before the CHP caller gave up and hung up.
The report concludes that the phone number "was associated with an NASL building that had been demolished approximately 10 years prior."
The report says that the NASL Regional Dispatch Center didn't establish contact with CHP dispatchers until "six minutes after the Jeep Grand Cherokee hit the F-18 Hornet."
As one of the conclusions in the report, Navy investigators recommended that NASL should maintain an updated phone contact list with "all federal, state and local law enforcement entities" and periodically test for two-way communications to verify accuracy.
Investigators also recommended that NASL adopt a radio communication system compatible with law enforcement agencies in Kings County.
The report concluded that the internal mobile radio system used by NASL at the time of the incident wasn't compatible with "most local law enforcement partners."
There may have been other NASL security changes as a result of the investigation, but it’s not clear what those were.
The investigative report, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, was heavily censored, with large sections blacked out.
The significance of the incident is highlighted by the fact that the Navy houses approximately 60 percent of its carrier-based strike-fighter capability at NASL.
NASL is also slated to be the home base of 100 next-generation F-35C fighter jets by 2028.
Other top Lemoore-area stories in 2016:
- The City Council adopted a new water rate structure that on average will increase water bills 30 percent a year for the next four years, beginning on Jan. 1, 2017. Officials say the hike is necessary to offset lower revenue stemming from water conservation and to pay for an estimated $33 million in water system improvements in the next five years, including an $18 million filtration system they say is needed to bring water quality up to state standards.
- A sidewalk rule proposed in July that would hold homeowners directly responsible for damage to the sidewalk in front of their house that could injury somebody. When the rule was floated at a City Council study session, there was a groundswell of critical comments from unhappy Lemoore residents. The proposal was sent back to the drawing board. A modified version of it is likely to come back for a vote next year.
- The election of two new members to the Lemoore City Council last month. Teacher Holly Blair and NASL civilian employee Dave Brown replaced outgoing members Lois Wynn and William Siegel. Councilman Eddie Neal was re-elected.