Authorities on Wednesday arrested a Bay Area-based Coast Guard member and shipped him south to San Diego, where he’ll await court-martial proceedings for allegedly killing a fellow seaman in Alaska.
Military prosecutors have charged Seaman Ethan W. Tucker, 19, with 11 specifications tied to the slaying, including murder, involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, maiming, obstructing justice, providing a false official statement and underage drinking.
Those charges capped a seven-month probe by Coast Guard Investigative Service agents and Alaskan authorities into the death of Seaman Ethan Kelch, 19, who was discovered unresponsive on the western side of Amaknak Island on Jan. 27 after going missing from the cutter Douglas Munro during liberty hours the night before.
“Since our shipmate’s untimely passing, we have been in contact with his family to provide as much support as possible throughout this tragic and difficult time. The charges today are the result of the Coast Guard’s steadfast desire to gather all the facts and seek justice,” said Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Brickey, spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area, in a prepared statement emailed to Navy Times.
Incarcerated in San Diego’s Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar, Tucker was unavailable for comment on Thursday but on Friday his military attorney, Navy Cmdr. Justin C. Henderson, said he wants the seaman released from custody.
“Our focus right now is getting Seaman Tucker out of the brig and back to work, so he can help us prepare his defense to these charges," Henderson said in an email to Navy Times. "He certainly presents no risk of flight or misconduct, as even Coast Guard leadership recognized by having him work in base security throughout the investigation into this tragedy.”
Investigators suspect that on Jan. 26 Tucker strangled Kelch and punched his head — causing bleeding that swelled between the skull and scalp — before placing his body in the water and leaving him to die, according to charge sheets provided to Navy Times.
Crew members off their cutter, which was undergoing repairs in Dutch Harbor, began a ground search for Kelch while a Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopter canvassed two of the Fox Islands from the sky.
They were soon joined by Unalaska police, fire and emergency medical services personnel. But prosecutors accuse Tucker of intentionally misleading them about where to hunt for Kelch because he “had reason to believe that there were or would be criminal proceedings pending," the court filings state.
They say Tucker also lied about how he hurt his hand, an injury he claimed had been caused by “punching a steel bulkhead" after hearing Kelch had died, prosecutors wrote.
Reached by phone on Coast Guard Island, Senior Chief Public Affairs Specialist NyxoLyno Cangemi told Navy Times that Tucker had been removed from the cutter in June and transferred to California’s Base Alameda.
Tucker had reported to the the Kodiak, Alaska-based cutter on Nov. 13, 2017, seven months after enlisting in Luddington, Michigan, Cangemi said.
While Cangemi spoke of the tragic, “sudden and traumatic” loss of a fellow Coast Guard member and ongoing concerns about the dead seaman’s grieving loved ones, he urged readers to remember that Tucker is considered innocent until proven guilty by a panel of his peers.
Tucker is awaiting an Article 32 hearing that has yet to be scheduled. It will determine if there’s enough evidence for Tucker to stand trial during a court-martial convened by Pacific Area Commander Vice Adm. Linda L. Fagan.
Prine came to Navy Times after stints at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Combat Infantryman Badge.