PLACING BLAME AT ANY COST

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The F-15 thundered down the runway, all grace and raw power, until it cartwheeled into the woods in a huge explosion. The lone U.S. Air Force pilot perished instantly in the crash at Germany's Spangdahlem air base last year. Another victim, far from the fireball that day, was also consumed--in a different way. He suffered much longer.

This is a story about how the Air Force pushed the principle of accountability to a tragic extreme. To make up for an earlier, fatal misdeed left initially unpunished, the Air Force court-martialed a pair of mechanics who had made what appeared to be a good repair on a piece of equipment that the Air Force admitted was poorly designed. Instead of acknowledging that it had been warned about the problem, the Air Force pursued the senior mechanic with such zeal that he came to believe suicide was his only escape.

Technical Sergeant Thomas Mueller spent 15 min. under the F-15's sleek skin on May 17, 1995, finishing a repair job left undone by others. Mueller, Technical Sergeant William Campbell and a third man rebolted a pair of flight-control rods to two hookups that relayed the pilot's tug on his control stick to the movable flaps that control the plane's flight. Mueller, a highly regarded 17-year Air Force mechanic, double-checked the work with a mirror and flashlight.

They didn't know how easy it was to crisscross the thin metal rods. But the Air Force knew: in 1986 and 1991 mechanics at other bases had made the same error. Their F-15 pilots were saved from certain death only because an alert ground crew and one pilot noted the flaps weren't moving properly before takeoff. But as Major Donald Lowry Jr., 36, prepared to fly on May 30, 1995, no one noticed the snafu. So Lowry's plane, instead of being lifted into the sky that Memorial Day morning, was pushed into the runway and disintegrated at 250 m.p.h.

It was Mueller's misfortune to be part of the 52nd Fighter Wing, the outfit that mistakenly downed two U.S. Army helicopters over Iraq in 1994, killing 26 people. The 52nd's commanders had failed to bring the two F-15 pilots to court-martial for their central role in the disaster. That didn't please General Ronald Fogleman, the tough-talking fighter pilot who runs the Air Force. In August 1995 he effectively ended the pilots' careers with letters of condemnation. "We are held in high regard by the public because of the integrity we demonstrate by holding ourselves accountable and others accountable for their actions," Fogleman told the Air Force. He declared that he scolded the 52nd's leadership for its neglect.

If the Air Force really wanted someone to blame for Lowry's crash, it could have gone back and figured out why no one had done anything following the earlier, identical mistakes. "Cross-connecting the rods is an easy mistake to make," an Air Force report warned after the 1986 foul-up. "We ought to fix it so they can't be connected wrong," a second said. The Air Force ignored that recommendation and even failed to warn its mechanics of the danger.

Only after Lowry's death did the Air Force begin making changes to eliminate the problem. Two weeks later, it emphasized to all F-15 pilots and maintainers the importance of checking flap movements just before takeoff. A week after that order, the Air Force finally alerted its F-15 units around the world to the fact that the rods could be easily reversed: that's because at the time, while the rods were color coded (one green, the other white), both attaching points were green, making the rods' color differences useless. Only now is the Air Force coordinating the colors of rods and links and studying the possibility of making physical changes to the connectors to eliminate the chance of mistakes.

After the crash, the 52nd was ready to prove it could punish its own. It took the extraordinary step of charging the two mechanics with criminally negligent homicide, punishable by four years in prison, a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. Mueller complained in a letter to his parents' Congressman, "Now we, the little guys, have to pay."

Mueller had long taken great pride in being a "little guy." He was among the hundreds of thousands of enlisted people in the U.S. military whose work enables the stars to shine. Born in Germany, he became an American citizen shortly after marrying Rosa, a Texas woman, in 1977. He loved playing and coaching soccer and making fishing lures with his two sons, Daniel, 15, and Marcelo, 11. Before his trial, numerous colleagues, including two F-15 pilots, submitted letters praising Mueller's skill and integrity. Captain Christopher Foster, an F-15 pilot, wrote that he would "feel completely comfortable" flying any F-15 Mueller had fixed.

Lawyers for the 52nd pressed a different story, making sure above all that the jury did not hear about the 1986 and 1991 rod-crossing incidents, or the steps taken after Lowry's death to fix the problem. But a February legal review, required before any court-martial, strongly criticized that approach: the jury, an Air Force lawyer outside the 52nd cautioned, might see Mueller as "a victim of poor policy" and a "mere scapegoat."

But Air Force prosecutors ignored that guidance. The service intercepted and opened mail addressed to the defendants from a safety expert who wanted to help them, and kept it for a month. An airman complained that prosecutors threatened "to cut me off at the knees" for insisting that the enlisted mechanics were being unfairly targeted. After a break in a preliminary hearing, Mueller returned to the hearing room to find Lowry's autopsy photos atop his table. (The color pictures were graphic; the accident report lists PILOT'S CRANIUM as Item No. 321.) Mueller's sister Sabine Dalianis said later, "My brother told me he didn't know if he could ever close his eyes again without seeing those pictures."

In May the judge, Colonel James Young III, granted the government's request that the earlier botched repairs could not be used in the mechanics' defense. In June, Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall rejected the pair's request to see the secret crash report that might help their case. The Air Force even wanted Lowry's parents to come to Germany to tell the jury of the pain they had suffered. Instead, Donald Lowry Sr. sent a letter urging leniency for Mueller. "This has already been a tragedy for all concerned," he wrote, "and the infliction of further pain will give no solace to me or to my family."(Lowry's widow Margret has sued McDonnell Douglas, which builds the F-15, alleging that "defects in design" caused the accident.) On Sept. 27, Young granted the prosecution's request for a gag order in the case. Mueller wrote his family: "The government is making it almost impossible for us to defend ourselves."

The first two days of October were filled with pre-court-martial motions and decisions, most of which went against the mechanics. A public admission by the Air Force's top safety official that the service had erred by not fixing the problem years ago was deemed not relevant by Young. "I feel like dirt right now," Mueller wrote in his trial notebook. "Every second of every minute of every day, I fall apart a little more." The case was forcing his sons to grow up too quickly. "How do I tell them how sorry I am for putting them though this?"

The next day, Oct. 3, was Tom and Rosa's 19th wedding anniversary. It also was to be the formal start of the court-martial. But when Rosa awoke that morning, her husband was gone. By early afternoon, Rosa had found his Peugeot near a mountain creek where he loved to fish with his sons. The Air Force organized a search of the area. Soon Mueller's father Peter arrived on the scene, having just flown to Germany from his home in Florida for the court-martial.

Dozens of camouflage-clad Air Force men and women were slowly moving up a nearby steep ridge, calling Mueller's name. Peter Mueller was distressed. "It was a manhunt," he says. "Thomas, Poppa is here," he pleaded over a police bullhorn. "Come out." But Thomas was nearly a mile away, and the sound of his father's voice was drowned out by those of the Air Force personnel. "I was sure I could find him, but they wouldn't let me go in." Peter Mueller says. Instead, he found a road that wended closer to the ridge line, where he stood, calling for his son in the twilight.

About half a mile away, three searchers came upon an elevated hunters' shack. As his commander, Major Dee Mills, clambered up the 10-ft. ladder, Mueller put a gun to his head and fired. "Rosa, I love you," he had written on the shack's window frame in his final moments. "I was not negligent." Back home he'd left the Lowry family a note. "I know I am going to heaven. And in heaven I cannot hurt anyone else, not even by accident."

On Nov. 13, the service, citing "justice and the interests of the Air Force," dropped its case against Campbell, the other mechanic, in exchange for his decision to leave the military.