MODESTO — Law enforcement helicopters burn a lot of public dollars. And the use of Stanislaus County's two Sheriff's Department helicopters came under scrutiny after a flight crew dropped golf balls for a private fund-raiser outside the county in May.
A Bee review of flight logs back to 2008 shows the aircraft were used for law enforcement or training the majority of the time, but more than 45 hours were spent on community events, citizen ride-alongs, flyovers and demos, costing about $35,000 in fuel, maintenance and crew pay.
The aircraft flew to support community groups such as Boy Scouts and Leadership Modesto, took part in activities such as National Night Out and the Manteca Memorial Day event, and served in static displays at schools.
Other activities were flyovers for Peace Officer Memorial ceremonies at Lakewood Cemetery in Hughson and in Tuolumne County. More than $1,000 was spent on an orientation flight over the county in September 2008 for District Attorney Birgit Fladager, former Supervisor Jeff Grover and current board Chairman Vito Chiesa, who were given an aerial view of "future projects," the log says.
The flight that created a more recent stir was the May 15 event at Saddle Creek resort in Calaveras County, where the crew dropped a bucket of golf balls for the Make Dreams Real charity fund-raiser.
A two-person helicopter crew spent 66 minutes and 25 gallons of fuel on what was logged as a training flight and charity stopover. Operating the helicopter is estimated to cost $650 an hour, not counting salaries, so the flight cost taxpayers around $800.
Sheriff Adam Christianson allowed a helicopter ride to be auctioned for the May event run by a political supporter and county vendor. What's more, the helicopter hovered over the Saddle Creek golf course May 15 as police agencies conducted gang sweeps in Stanislaus County.
The controversy put the sheriff on the defensive, and creates an opening for political foes as he prepares to campaign for re-election next year.
"What really bothered me is that, in these budget times, we have law enforcement agencies doing a gang sweep and our helicopter is dropping golf balls," said deputy Tom Letras, who will run for sheriff in next year's election.
Officials were asked why a sheriff's air support unit that often supports local police did not participate in the gang sweeps May 15.
Sheriff's Lt. Mike Parker, air support unit commander, said Modesto police officials didn't request a sheriff's helicopter. A California Highway Patrol copter supported the ground units for the parole and probation sweeps, which resulted in scores of arrests and firearm seizures.
Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll said the CHP was among local, state and federal agencies that attended a planning meeting for the operation and volunteered its helicopter.
"One of my lieutenants put the meeting together," Carroll said. "My understanding is that it wasn't a question of whether the (sheriff's helicopter) was available or not. Before anyone spoke up, the CHP offered their helicopter."
Christianson insisted that no one from his staff said the sheriff's helicopter was already committed. If the MPD had asked for sheriff's air support, "that would have been our priority, and our mission would have shifted to that operation," he said.
An earlier dust-up
Before the golf benefit, flight logs show, the Sheriff's Department had been more scrupulous about helicopter use compared with revelations in 2005, which led to a stricter county vehicle policy.
Eight years ago, Christianson was a lieutenant who oversaw air support when an investigator determined that photographing a sheriff's aircraft for a private company's catalog was an improper use of county resources. Former Sheriff Les Weidman was criticized for taking costly helicopter rides to out-of-town meetings.
County leaders set a policy that restricts the sheriff's aircraft to law enforcement and work activities. The air support unit has a $374,000 budget this year.
Boyett the man, Boyett the business
Modesto businessman Carl Boyett was unexpectedly caught up in the golf charity flap. The chief executive officer of Boyett Petroleum oversees the Make Dreams Real endowment to send underprivileged schoolchildren to outdoor education camps.
Boyett has donated campaign funds to the sheriff and, under a contract with the county, deputies fill patrol cars at Boyett gas stations or use a Boyett Cruise Americard to purchase fuel at other stations, Letras said.
Boyett said the sheriff was not the purchasing agent for the contract. The company also contracts with Modesto, Kern County and other entities for the same service, and the Cruise Americard is marketed nationwide, he said.
He said the sheriff providing air support for his fund-raiser was similar to fire departments that take their engines to local schools. "The sheriff made it quite clear that, if he needed the helicopter that day, it wasn't going to be available for us," Boyett said.
Christianson has said flights in support of community groups or fund-raisers coincide with patrols or training. He doesn't apologize for supporting efforts, such as Make Dreams Real, that strive to pull young people from criminal environments, he says.
Some people don't buy the sheriff's claim that public-relation flights are combined with police work.
"My guess is that the (golf) event came first and then they found something that could be called training," said Eric Reimer of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association. He put the event in the same category as an often-cited helicopter flight in 2000 that delivered wine for a meeting at the Diablo Grande resort.
Some flight logs raise questions about cost-effective use of the aircraft. In January 2009, deputy Roy Pettit and Modesto police officer Jerry Ramar took the helicopter to attend a deputy sheriffs union dinner held at the Ray Simon Training Center on Cornucopia Way in south Modesto.
Parker explained that Ramar attended the dinner to receive an award for heroism. As a tactical flight officer, he fired the shot that killed a 27-year-old Turlock man who fatally kicked his 2-year-old son on Bradbury Road in 2008.
Parker said the flight crew attending the dinner could have jumped in the aircraft to respond to an emergency if needed. The Helicopter Association International gave awards to sheriff's pilot Rob Latapie and Ramar for their response to the Bradbury incident, and a photo crew was taken up to shoot video for the awards ceremony.
In early 2009, a flight crew and mechanic flew to a Northern California Airborne Law Enforcement Association meeting at the Hayward airport in the Bay Area. According to the log, they "went to NCALEA meeting to discuss hosting the annual barbecue. And safety training."
Parker said an NCALEA barbecue was formerly held in Modesto so that air support staff could network with other agencies in the state.
Budget cuts bring limits
After years of budget cuts, the air support unit now limits its ceremonial flyovers, Parker said. Crews concentrate on patrols, spotting marijuana grows and assisting local police departments in the summer months. From October to Memorial Day, the aircraft are called out only for incidents that threaten the public.
Christianson said the aircraft are a valuable resource, enabling deputies to use an infrared camera to find suspects who are hiding from ground units or to quickly locate jail escapees. The flight crews learn long-line rescue skills from Sonoma County's air support unit and have rescued hard-to-reach victims at the Carnegie off-road park east of Tracy.
The sheriff said the aircraft will continue to support community groups that raise funds for underprivileged children or to support fallen peace officers. The county's chief executive officer and county counsel have cautioned the sheriff about private fund-raisers that may be deemed inappropriate.
Christianson said he doesn't think Boyett will ask for sheriff's air support again for Make Dreams Real. "To protect an honorable businessman, with honorable intentions, who was trying to help young people, I would not subject Carl Boyett to this shameful treatment again," he said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.
AT A GLANCE
More information on the Stanislaus County air support unit:
BASE: Modesto Airport
COMMANDER: Lt. Mike Parker
MISSION: Patrol, drug enforcement, search and rescue, assist local police
AIRCRAFT: Two helicopters,
STAFF: Two pilots, tactical flight officers, maintenance, support personnel
EQUIPMENT: Digital camera system, spotlight, night-vision goggles, thermal imaging
ANNUAL BUDGET: $374,000