Preliminary Cases Presented At Hearing Of Coast Guardsman Accused Of Shipmate's Murder In Unalaska

Oct 17, 2019

Credit Berett Wilber/KUCB

At a prelimary hearing Wednesday in California, military prosecutors argued that U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Ethan Tucker, 21, "choked out" and punched Seaman Ethan Kelch, 19, during a fatal night of heavy drinking in Unalaska last winter.

That's according to a report by the San Diego Union-Tribune's Andrew Dyer, who covered the hearing at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

Following a seven-month investigation, Tucker, of Ludington, MI, was charged in August with seven violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including murder, involuntary manslaughter, maiming, obstructing justice, making false statements, and failing to obey the general lawful order.

As Dyer reports, the prosecution and defense presented differing accounts of what happened between Cutter Douglas Munro shipmates Tucker and Kelch, of Virginia Beach, Va, while the vessel was stopped in Unalaska for repairs:

At Wednesday's Article 32 hearing — the military equivalent of a grand jury — military prosecutors said evidence and witness statements support their theory that Tucker "choked-out" and punched Kelch during a night of heavy drinking on an Alaskan beach on Jan. 26.

Believing Kelch was already dead, Tucker dragged him to the water where he left him facedown, prosecutors said. Kelch drowned.

Prosecutors said a third man, Coast Guard Seaman Trevin Hunter, witnessed Tucker put Kelch in a choke hold. According to prosecutors, Hunter saw both men fall and Kelch struck his head on the edge of a Conex shipping container, which was near the beach where his body was eventually found on Jan. 27.

Lt. Sara Gluckler, a Coast Guard prosecutor, told the court there is enough evidence in the investigative report to proceed to court-martial.

Navy Cmdr. Justin Henderson, Tucker's attorney, painted a different picture of what happened that night. The defense argued that Kelch often became belligerent when drinking and, on that night, he kept trying to "go for a swim" in the frigid waters off Amaknak Island.

"We will present evidence that Seaman Kelch was trying to, for whatever reason, go for a swim, and the other two were trying to grab him and pull him out for about half an hour," Henderson said after the hearing. He said a series of Snapchat videos recorded by Hunter show Tucker trying to keep Kelch out of the water before Tucker collapsed, exhausted and intoxicated.

The videos were not played in court. Henderson said the three men together had downed a single bottle of whiskey, R&R Reserve.

He said four first responders found Tucker the next morning passed out about 200 yards down the beach from where Kelch's body was later found.

Read the San Diego Union-Tribune's full story here.

Now, the preliminary hearing's officer will issue recommendations on whether the charges against Tucker should move forward. Based on that nonbinding report, the Coast Guard's Pacific Area commander will decide whether the case proceeds to a court-martial trial. 

If the case goes to trial and Tucker is found guilty, he could face life imprisonment, dishonorable discharge, and total forfeiture of pay and allowances, according to NyxoLyno Cangemi, assistant public affairs officer for the Coast Guard Pacific Area.

Tucker is currently in custody at the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar, a military prison in San Diego. He's been held there since his arrest in August.

Correction: This story previously misstated Ethan Tucker's age. He is 21 years old, not 19.