A U.S. Coast Guard member was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide charges this week in connection to the 2019 death of his shipmate near their Alaska duty station.
Seaman Ethan W. Tucker, 22, was also facing murder charges in connection to the Jan. 27, 2019, death of 19-year-old Seaman Ethan Kelch, who was found unresponsive on the western side of Amaknak Island after going missing from the Kodiak-based cutter Douglas Munro during liberty hours the night before.
But a plea agreement last week saw the government drop those murder charges in exchange for Tucker pleading guilty to charges involving underage drinking, making a false official statement and “a general disorder offense,” according to Tucker’s defense attorney, Navy Cmdr. Justin Henderson.
The government proceeded with a bench trial on the remaining charges, and Tucker was found not guilty of negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter charges Wednesday, Henderson told Navy Times.
“Within hours after Ethan Kelch’s tragic death 20 months ago, Coast Guard investigators and officials wrongly blamed Seaman Tucker,” Henderson said. “As we expected, a fair trial on the facts vindicated him.”
“The military judge who heard all the government’s evidence acquitted Seaman Tucker of causing Seaman Kelch’s death.”
Cmdr. Tamara Wallen, the Coast Guard judge in the trial, did find Tucker guilty of an assault charge from when Tucker struck Kelch the night before his death.
Questions continue to swirl about what happened on Alaska's Amaknak Island 11 months ago.
Henderson said both men were down near the water and “very drunk” that evening, and that Tucker was trying to get Kelch back on the trail and back to their ship.
He told Navy Times last year that Tucker was “desperately” trying to keep Kelch from swimming in the 38-degree water.
“Our defense was that this was a reasonable use of force” to try and get Kelch back on the trail, Henderson said this week.
Prosecutors had alleged that Tucker strangled and punched Kelch in the head — causing swelling between the skull and scalp — before placing his body in the water and leaving him to die, according to charge sheets.
Tucker was sentenced to 14 months' confinement, reduction to E-1 and a bad-conduct discharge, according to court records.
Because Tucker received 249 days pre-trial confinement credit, he will likely serve just less than five months in the brig, Henderson said.
Coast Guard officials did not respond to requests for comment on the case.