The Coast Guard accused a seaman of murdering a shipmate. New evidence tells a different story

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A Coast Guard seaman accused of murder was released from a San Diego brig Monday as the admiral overseeing his prosecution ordered a new hearing in the case.

Seaman Ethan W. Tucker, 21, was arrested August 28 after a seven-month Coast Guard investigation into the January death of Seaman Ethan Kelch, 19, who served on the same ship as Tucker— the Douglas Munro, a high endurance cutter based in Kodiak, Alaska.

Tucker is charged with murder, involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, making false official statements, obstruction of justice and failure to obey orders. He has not entered a plea and won't do so unless his case is referred to a court-martial.

Initially the Coast Guard accused Tucker of causing blunt force trauma to Kelch the night of Jan. 26 and dragging him into the frigid water where he drowned. His body was found Jan. 27.

However evidence presented by Tucker's defense at a preliminary Article 32 hearing Oct. 16 cast the events of that night in a different light.

Snapchat videos posted by a witness who was there that night — Coast Guard Seaman Trevin Hunter — showed Tucker trying to keep Kelch out of the water, not placing him there, said Navy Cmdr. Justin Henderson, Tucker's attorney at the hearing.

The videos were not shown in court.

According to testimony at the October hearing, Kelch often became belligerent and difficult to deal with when he drank. Henderson said on the night Kelch died, Tucker fought with him when Kelch tried to "go for a swim" in waters off Amaknak Island.

Henderson said that night the three men had downed a bottle of R&R Reserve Whiskey. Tucker fought to keep Kelch out of the water for about half an hour, according to Henderson, before Tucker collapsed, exhausted and intoxicated.

Tucker was found unconscious 200 yards down the beach by first responders the next day.

Article 32 hearings in the military system serve a role similar to a civilian grand jury. A hearing officer hears testimony and weighs evidence before making recommendations on how to proceed to a convening authority — in this case, Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, the Coast Guard's Pacific area commander.

Testimony by the Alaska medical examiner who performed Kelch's autopsy also contradicted the government's narrative. Dr. Cristin Rolf testified over the phone that none of Kelch's head injuries were fatal and that he died by drowning.

That was enough for Fagan to send Tucker's case back to prosecutors. A new Article 32 hearing is scheduled for Dec. 3 in Alameda, California, where Tucker is now stationed.

The new charges eliminate language alleging Tucker caused "blunt force trauma" to Kelch and instead allege he struck the victim "unlawfully."

Prosecutors now allege that Tucker left Kelch in the water rather than placing him there.

A maiming charge connected with the assault allegation was dropped.

On Monday, Rear Adm. Melvin W. Bouboulis ordered Tucker released from the Navy Consolidated Brig Miramar, where he has been held since his August arrest. In an email Monday, a Coast Guard spokesman said Tucker would work in logistics at Coast Guard Base Alameda while awaiting future court dates.

©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune - Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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