SEAL instructor will not face charges in death of trainee who drowned

Navy Seaman James Derek Lovelace drowned in a pool exercise.

ByABC News
April 10, 2017, 3:53 PM

— -- The Navy has decided that an instructor will not face criminal charges in the death of Navy SEAL trainee James Derek Lovelace, 21, who drowned during a pool training exercise last May. The unit commander determined that Lovelace's death was not the result of a crime.

"The commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command has determined that the 6 May 2016 death of Seaman James 'Derek' Lovelace, a Basic Underwater Demolition and SEAL training (BUD/S) trainee, was not the result of a crime and will not pursue criminal charges against any personnel in connection with the death," according to a statement from the Navy's Special Warfare Command.

The statement said Cmdr. Liam Hulin’s decision was based on a review of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigation into the circumstances of Lovelace's death during SEAL training.

"Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Lovelace family," Hulin sad. "No loss of life in training is an acceptable loss."

"The scope of the NCIS case was sufficient to provide Hulin with information necessary to determine whether the training fatality may have been caused by the commission of a crime," the statement said.

Lovelace died May 6, 2016, while participating in a pool exercise with other SEAL trainees as part of the rigorous program that selects the sailors who will join the elite special operations unit. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, known as BUDS, is conducted at the Naval Special Warfare Center in San Diego.

The training exercise was known as “Combat Swimmer Orientation” where “instructors in the water splash, make waves and yell at the students in order to create an “adverse” environment.” But instructors were reportedly “not to dunk or pull the students under the water,” according to the medical examiner's investigation and report.

In July, the San Diego medical examiner suggested that the stressful exercise in the pool and aggressive instructors may have played a role in his death. The report also found that Lovelace had an underlying condition known as cardiomegaly, or an enlarged heart, which could have been a contributing factor.

The medical examiner's report labeled Lovelace's death as a homicide, but the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) cautioned that the term "homicide" referred to "death at the hands of another" and a homicide is not inherently a crime.

“According to multiple witnesses, the decedent was struggling during the event," the medical examiner's report said. "Multiple people stated that his face was purple and his lips were blue.”

“One individual was even reportedly considering calling a time-out to stop the exercise,” the report read. “According to Naval records, the decedent was not a strong swimmer.”

Lovelace was pulled from the pool conscious, soon became unresponsive and later died, despite what the medical examiner's report described as “aggressive resuscitative efforts” after he was taken to a hospital.

“It is not known how the anatomic cardiac findings may have affected the decedent,” the report said, “as aberrant coronary arteries have been associated with sudden cardiac death, especially in athletes or other situations of extreme exertion."

The medical examiner's report cited video footage of the pool training exercise, reviewed by investigators, where an instructor “is seen to dunk the decedent under the water and then follow him around the pool for approximately 5 minutes," the report read. "He continually splashes the decedent, dunks him at least one additional time and appears to be yelling at him. The decedent is also splashed by other individuals during the event.”

Lovelace's death in May was the third in seven months involving current or former SEAL recruits who had gone through BUDS training.

The deaths led the Navy to institute new procedures for keeping track of trainees who do not make it through the grueling process to become SEALs.