The Coast Guard has dropped charges of involuntary manslaughter and destruction of government property against the captain of the cutter Cuyahoga, which sank in a Chesapeake Bay collision last October, killing 11 crewmen.
Coast Guard Commandant John B. Hayes dismissed the charges against Chief Warrant Officer Donald K. Robinson, skipper of the training vessel. Haye's decision was made earlier this week and announced here yesterday.
Robinson, 48, still faces a third charge, negligently putting a vessel in danger, and will stand trial in a courtmartial expected to be convened within a month at Yorktown, Va., the Coast Guard said.
Reached at his Yorktown home near the training base where the Cuyahoga was stationed, Robinson said yesterday, "It's a great relief and a burden off my back. They felt there was some merit to it (the manslaughter charge) at first. I guess they had some second thoughts."
The decision followed a military judge's order to the Coast Guard last week to reopen its investigation of the collision or drop the manslaughter and damage charges.
"Hayes just wanted this done with," a Coast Guard spokesman said yesterday. "The new investigation would have taken four months. Robinson has a right to a speedy trial. Hayes just decided to drop it."
Marilyn Clark of Clovis, N.M., whose 25-year-old son drowned in a berthing area of the sunken cutter, reacted bitterly yesterday to news of the commandant's decision.
"You mean 11 men weren't enough to justify manslaughter?" she asked a reporter. "I only lost one. But I think somebody ought to answer for it."
Leonie Balina of Newport News, widow of Subsistence Specialist First Class Ernestino Balina, who was trapped in the Cuyahoga's boiler room, said, "I'm very upset. I just don't know that to say."
The manslaughter and damage charges were brought by Hayes and grew out of a Marine Board of Investigation inquiry that last month found Robinson to blame for negligently hazarding his vessel.
A separate investigation earlier this year by the National Transportation Safety Board also found Robinson to blame for the collision.
Cmdr. Richard Appelbaum, presiding over a preliminary hearing, ruled last week that Robinson was entitled to further invetigation of the two additional charges brought by Hayes and ordered the Coast Guard to reopen its probe or drop the charges.
That led to this week's decision to try Robinson on the third charge alone, the Coast Guard said.
Kieron Quinn, a Baltimore lawyer representing the owners of the freighter that struck the Cuyahoga, said yesterday, "Somebody blew it. I assume that if you have to throw out charges because of a procedural difficulty, there was a mistake somewhere."
Robinson's attorney, Jerome V. Flanagan of Boston, could not be reached for comment.
If convicted of negligence, the 26-year vetern could face dismissal from the service and two years' hard labor.
A self-described devout Christian and the father of six, Robinson said yesterday he has suffered throughout the ordeal. "It's not something you just shrug off. But I have great strength in the Lord."
Robinson said he would plead not guilty to the remaining charge.
"I think most people fell that enough is enough," he said, adding that nothing would be gained by "continuing to drag it out."
Robinson was the first Coast Guard captain charged with manslaughter and the service's first officer to face a general court-martial since 1966. "I love the Coast Guard-it's been my career," he said. "I don't necessarily want to leave."
Asked if he would like to command another ship one day, Robinson said, "If it was offered to me, I wouldn't hesitate."
The Cuyahoga collided with an Argentinean freighter, the Santa Cruz II, at 9 p.m. on Oct. 20 as the cutter prepared to enter the Potomac River to anchor for the night.
The marine board of inquiry, convened by Hayes, found that the cause of the collision was Robinson's last-minute decision to make a sudden left turn that placed his ship and its 29 crew-members in the path of the on-coming Santa Cruz.
In a statement to investigators shortly after the collision, Robinson said he mistook the 12,000-ton freighter for a small fishing vessel
Marilyn Clark of New Mexico yesterday expressed fear that Robinson might "do it to somebody else" if the manslaughter and damage charges were not pressed. "I'm pretty upset by the whole deal," she said.
She added that her family has decided not to sue anyone in connection with the collision. "My son's life," she said, "could not be bought." CAPTION: Picture 1, The Cuyahoga, which sank after a collision in October, is shown after it was raised by two Navy cranes, AP, Picture 2, DONALD K. ROBINSON . . . faces negligence charge