Monday, November 20, 2006

Marines staying mum on training death investigation

Monday, November 20, 2006
Last modified Thursday, November 16, 2006 12:44 AM PST

Marines staying mum on training death investigation

By: JOE BECK - Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON -- The continuing investigation into the shooting death of a Marine in a training exercise at Camp Pendleton won't be complete for three to six months, according to base officials.

The Marines have made few details available on what caused the shooting of Cpl. Seth M. Algrim on Oct. 30. It was at least the third incident since 2000 in which a Marine was injured or killed in a training exercise at Camp Pendleton. The latest comments from camp officials on the investigation came in an e-mail responding to questions submitted by the North County Times Tuesday.

Investigators are continuing to treat Algrim's death as an accident, according to the e-mail message.

Camp officials said last week that Algrim, 22, was shot to death while training on a firing range that is normally limited to blank ammunition. His father, Bruce Algrim of Garden City, Kan., said Marine officials had told him that his son was shot in the head by someone in his unit.

The shooting happened while Algrim was training with 50 to 100 other Marines around small, mock cinder-block buildings intended to simulate urban combat conditions.

Lt. Esteban Vickers, a Marine spokesman at Camp Pendleton, said last week that the training is a standard exercise conducted to prepare Marines to search buildings and conduct other activities in cities inhabited by hostile forces.

Algrim's death came four years after Pfc. Jeremy R. Purcell, 19, died under similar circumstances at Camp Pendleton. That case resulted in disciplinary action taken against several members of Purcell's unit. Purcell's father filed a lawsuit against the government that was later dismissed. Marine officials at the time also said they were changing the way ammunition on the base was being handled to prevent further accidental shootings.

Purcell was killed on Aug. 28, 2002, during a training session on another shooting range reserved for blank ammunition, according to accounts in newspapers and legal documents at the time. Purcell, a military policeman from Provo, Utah, was one of several Marines playing the role of enemy combatants in a simulated urban combat exercise involving members of the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company.

Marine officials at the time said the training was supposed to involve blank ammunition.

A subsequent investigation blamed Purcell's death on negligence by four Marines in Purcell's unit and weak safety measures. The investigation found that his platoon had been using live rounds in another exercise earlier in the day. Investigators said Sgt. Cody W. Ottley grabbed separate magazines, including one with live ammunition, and carried them to the firing range where Purcell was killed. Ottley then inadvertently loaded the live ammunition into his M4A1 carbine rifle and shot Purcell without realizing the gun contained live bullets.

Ottley later pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, was sentenced to a year in prison and received a bad-conduct discharge. Staff Sgt. Chad R. Chalkey, Ottley's team leader, received nonjudicial punishment for dereliction of duty in Purcell's death. Capt. Andrew Horne, Purcell's platoon commander, and Gunnery Sgt. Richard Kerkering, the platoon sergeant, were relieved of their duties and reassigned.

Marine officials at the time said they were establishing added safety precautions in the handling of live and blank ammunition, including more help for range safety officers who are responsible for controlling how ammunition is issued and stored.

Jon Purcell, the father of Jeremy Purcell, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Utah, accusing the Marines of negligence in his son's death.

"The death of Pfc. Jeremy R. Purcell resulted from a complete and total institutional failure on the part of the Marine Corps, at Camp Pendleton, to have in place, and enforce proper policies for use, storage, and accountability of ammunition used in training activities," Purcell said in court documents.

U.S. District Judge David Sam dismissed the case, citing previous court cases that exempt the military from paying damages for most injuries that a member of the military may suffer in the course of training or combat.

Purcell's death came after Lance Cpl. Waightstill Avery, 20, was accidentally wounded by live ammunition fired from a machine gun during a training exercise on Camp Pendleton in 2000. Newspaper accounts from the time reported that the live ammunition had been inadvertently loaded into a machine gun that had been modified to fire only blanks.

Avery, who underwent three surgeries for internal injuries, survived his wounds.

-- Contact staff writer Joe Beck at (760) 740-3516 or

Submitted by Patti Woodard

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