Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Where, oh where, has the helicopter landed?

PRINCESS ANNE -- If seeing is believing, the feds intend to get an eyeful "in the near future."

Md. police to conduct on-site inspection for feds of elusive Princess Anne aircraft

The elusive Princess Anne Police Department helicopter, guardedly moved from place to place to place to place -- and kept in recent years out of sight -- is on the radar of the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service that granted the aircraft to the town and is sending an inspector to see it for himself.
Maryland State Police Lt. Eugene Paluzzi said Tuesday that he decided to make the trip "soon," following inquiries last week about an Internet blog suggesting the helicopter was "hidden in a coop" on the Eastern Shore, apparently to conceal questionable activity.
Paluzzi is Maryland coordinator for the federal 1033 military Law Enforcement Support Office program, or LESO, that awards qualifying police departments with military surplus equipment, weapons or vehicles.
"I will be in Princess Anne physically to inspect," Paluzzi said Tuesday. "I will conduct an on-site audit. Somehow, the feds got ahold of the blog, called me and asked if the aircraft was there. The best way to find out is to come in the near future."
Not long after the U.S. Army surplus helicopter came into the custody of the Princess Anne Police Department in June 2005, the aircraft came under scrutiny by government leaders in the tri-county region. Elected officials in Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties were reluctant to lend financial support and manpower for a proposed Tri-County Helicopter Program of allied agencies primarily on the Lower Shore. The program, conceived by former Princess Anne police chief Russell Pecoraro, would have engaged in police operations such as marijuana eradication.
In need of some repair, the OH-58C model helicopter, rather, went into storage, first for about three years at a private hangar at the Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport, then for about a month at an outside storage facility of a private landowner in Wicomico County. Later, the same property owner moved the aircraft to a private barn on Walston Switch Road, also in Wicomico, where it sat until early 2008, when Princess Anne officials moved it to a location in Somerset County, said current Princess Anne Police Chief Scott Keller.

Here and there
Through the moves, the helicopter hasn't cost taxpayers a cent, Keller reaffirmed Tuesday, saying he welcomes the federal and state inspection. "A property owner was gracious to store it for us, now we have it," Keller said. "The last time the media knew about it, they hounded the guy, kept coming by and photographing it. He asked if (we) minded hiding the helicopter."

On Tuesday, Keller and other town officials allowed The Daily Times to see the grayish aircraft with orange panels on the condition its location is not revealed. Engraved on its side is "26-C, U.S. Army, 0-15226." Keller cites security reasons and nuisance queries tied to the aircraft for keeping the storage location secret.
"This doesn't need to be a three-ring circus," he said.
Paluzzi said he spoke to Keller this week about the aircraft, and was satisfied it is safe with parts in place. "We haven't found much merit to what was in this blog, that it's hidden in a (chicken) coop," Paluzzi said. "This is not a theft issue."
Both Pecoraro and Keller have said they hoped to eventually get the aircraft off the ground for police work or sell it for parts after five years, or 2010.
Keller dismisses another recent suggestion that a private investigator was conducting an inquiry about the helicopter.
"I don't know what they are investigating; that's unclear," he said. "I'm angry; there is no story. This is a story without lights. You're beating a dead horse."
He stood Tuesday at the undisclosed helicopter location, envisioning a black-and-white painted aircraft, polished with a workable engine and displaying a seal representing allied police agencies.
"My goal is to keep service at an even level. I'd like to have the helicopter; I'd like to have a tri-county (police) lab," he said. "My ultimate goal is to operate the helicopter, get it in the air, at no cost to taxpayers. That's my vision for the future."
Pecoraro shared the vision. A retired chief and detective at the Erie County Sheriff's Office in Buffalo, N.Y., he was a trained pilot for the department's aviation division. But the department's surplus helicopter program came under U.S. Department of Justice scrutiny after questions regarding the alleged illegal sale of aircraft parts, which is a program violation.

By the time the query ended with no wrongdoing ever uncovered, Pecoraro was chief at the 11-member Princess Anne Police Department and preparing to secure the department a surplus aircraft.

Pecoraro retired in 2008, but the Princess Anne Police Department's vision for a tri-county aircraft continues. Princess Anne Police Cpl. Rob Pinchak recalled a maneuver local law enforcement officers made last summer with the National Guard, a maneuver that tri-county allied agencies could do independently had they had an aircraft.
"We acted as observers on marijuana eradication," he said. "We're trying to promote (usage) of the helicopter. In the near future, we may get support."
What Princess Anne Police can't do, by law, is sell the $190,817-valued aircraft, said Kenneth MacNevin, public affairs officer at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service, or DRMS.
"The (Princess Anne Police Department) is not authorized to sell this aircraft because they received it after Sept. 30, 1996, and therefore, the LESO will not approve the sale," said MacNevin, whose agency is part of the Department of Defense's Defense Logistics Agency and manages the disposition of excess military property. Prior to 1996, local law enforcement agencies could sell, trade or barter awarded military surplus aircraft and specified other pieces of equipment after five years upon receipt, he said.
If Keller decides to not refurbish the aircraft, he has options, MacNevin said.
"They can retain the aircraft or aircraft parts, transfer them to another law enforcement agency or turn them in to the (DRMS)," he said.
Immediately, Keller has other priorities.
"Now, I'm concerned with the immediate needs of the department, such as cameras and computers," he said. "Once the economic crisis passes, we will write grants that justify if and when we need resources. Seventy five percent of the helicopter project is just having the helicopter. The other 25 percent is fixing it up."

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