FAA Clears TV Copter’s Pilot Of Complaints In Cornering Suspect
DENVER (AP) _ The pilot of a TV news helicopter that swooped down to help corner a robbery suspect was cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday of complaints he endangered citizens.
Police and a hostage taken by the man had commended the pilot for his quick action in ending the crime spree.
KCNC pilot Mike Silva used his helicopter Tuesday to block the escape of the suspect, who had run over and killed a police officer and taken a hostage following a holdup, enabling police to surround the man and shoot him to death.
The station’s dramatic footage of the chase and shootout was broadcast on network television Tuesday night.
Bob Bennett, regional FAA coordinator, said investigators interviewed Silva on Wednesday and reviewed unedited film from his helicopter before deciding he had not violated flight procedures.
Robert Shelton, manager of the FAA’s Flight Standards Office in Denver, said complaints that Silva’s actions had endangered the public spurred the investigation. ″We’ve received a lot of calls both pro and con,″ he said.
He would not say who filed the complaints or detail them.
Police Chief Ari Zavaras praised Silva, 37, a Vietnam War helicopter pilot and former police officer. ″I want to commend that pilot. He saved the day.″
The FBI identified the slain man as Phillip L. Hutchinson, 24, originally from Arlington, Va.
The Texas Department of Corrections said Hutchinson was a prison escapee who had been serving a life sentence for aggravated robbery. He fled July 31 with another inmate, who was recaptured, spokesman David Nunnelee said.
Hutchinson robbed a credit union office in northwest Denver at 11:20 a.m. Tuesday. He was spotted by police a block from the office and chased at speeds up to 60 mph for the next 20 minutes. Silva, in the air for another assignment, spotted the commotion and followed as camerman Jim Stair photographed the scene.
Detective Robert Wallis, 51, a 20-year veteran of the police force, was killed during the pursuit when Hutchinson’s getaway vehicle struck him as he was getting out of his car, police said.
Hutchinson ran into a tree and fled on foot through yards and across a creek. He tried unsuccessfully to commandeer two vehicles, firing at one as it sped off, then confronted John Laurienti, 73, of Denver in the driveway of his home and forced Laurienti to drive him from the area.
Silva said seeing Wallis’ body hurting 200 feet through the air converted him from an observer to a participant in the drama.
″Until that point, I was just strictly there as an observation platform,″ Silva said. But when Wallis was hit, Silva recalled, he told Stair he was going after the suspect, ″and if I have to, I’m going to crash this helicopter right on him.″
″I didn’t care anymore,″ Silva said. ″It was such blatant disregard for human life.″
Silva finally landed the station’s Bell JetRanger helicopter in front of Laurienti’s pickup truck in a supermarket parking lot. A police car rammed the passenger side of the vehicle moments later, and officers jumped out of their cruisers and began shooting.
Laurienti was yanked from the truck cab and escaped unharmed.
The KCNC videotape showed officers fired at least 16 shots at Hutchinson, including a pointblank shotgun blast after Laurienti was pulled to safety.
KCNC general manager Roger Ogden said that while his staff’s job is to cover news, not make it, he felt Silva acted properly. ″There comes a time when only we are in a position to provide a life and death service,″ Ogden said.
Laurienti also praised the swift action of police and Silva. He said Hutchinson had ordered him to ram the helicopter blocking his path, but Laurienti refused.
″I knew if I did, it might explode and it might kill the pilot, and he had done all he could to help,″ said Laurienti.