The drowning death of a U.S. sailor in Navy SEAL training has been ruled a homicide, with a medical examiner in San Diego determining that a SEAL instructor dunked the sailor in a swimming pool at least twice despite prohibitions against doing so.
Seaman James Derek Lovelace, 21, of Crestview, Fla., died May 6 during the famously difficult Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) course at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in California. His death was at least the third linked to SEAL training in the past year; two other students have committed suicide since November after washing out of the program.
Video surveillance obtained by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and reviewed by a medical-examiner investigator shows that when Lovelace struggled during a swimming exercise, one instructor on a platform pointed him out to a second one in the water. The second instructor approached Lovelace, dunked him and then followed him around the pool for five minutes, according to a report obtained Wednesday from the San Diego County medical examiner’s office.
“He continually splashes the decedent, dunks him at least one additional time, and appears to be yelling at him,” the report said. “The decedent is also splashed by other individuals during the event. At one point in the video, another individual in the water is seen pulling him up and away from the instructor.”
The incident occurred during what the SEALs call combat swimmer orientation, the report said. Students tread water while wearing camouflage utility uniforms, boots and masks filled with water. Instructors are supposed to create “adverse” conditions by splashing, making waves and yelling at the students without dunking or pulling them underwater.
The report said that Lovelace’s head went in and out of the water multiple times, and an instructor could be seen pulling him above the surface repeatedly. He and other students entered the water at 1:17 p.m., and Lovelace was pulled out at 1:42 p.m.
The cause of death is listed as drowning, with cardiomegaly a contributing factor. Cardiomegaly, better known as having an enlarged heart, can cause congestive heart failure. Lovelace was initially “audible but not coherent” and soon needed “aggressive attempts at resuscitation,” the report said. He was pronounced dead at Sharp Coronado Hospital near downtown San Diego at 2:36 p.m., less than an hour after he was pulled from the water.
Ed Buice, an NCIS spokesman, said in an email Wednesday that it is important to note that a homicide ruling refers to “death at the hands of another” and is “not inherently a crime.”
The details released in an autopsy report do not “signal that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation into Seaman Lovelace’s death has culminated, nor that conclusions have been reached regarding criminal culpability,” Buice said. “The NCIS investigation is open and active and NCIS does not discuss the details of ongoing investigations.”
Navy Lt. Trevor Davids, a spokesman for Naval Special Warfare Command, said one instructor involved in the incident was pulled away from his training duties afterward and remains so.
All SEAL training was stopped three days after Lovelace’s death for a “safety stand-down” in which training was reviewed as a precautionary measure, Davids added. Additional lifesaving equipment, including oxygen bottles and an additional defibrillator, also were added near the pools.
Davids said no additional changes will be made at this time, but more are possible once the investigation is complete. Navy Capt. Jay Hennessey, the commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Center, in May defended the format and focus of SEAL training.
“Despite a successful track record, any loss of life drives us to ensure we are doing everything possible to make training safe and effective,” Hennessey said then in a statement. “Our safety precautions for those who dropped from training have been effective for 50 years.”
The instructor removed from training is an enlisted petty officer first class. He joined the Navy in 2008 and has served in SEAL units based in Coronado and southeastern Virginia. He has deployed to Afghanistan at least twice and received a Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor. He is not currently facing any accusations of wrongdoing, and his name has not been released.
Adam Goldman contributed to this report.