Lurean Wheaton was asleep when the Broward Sheriff’s Office helicopter fell out of the sky and into her Pompano Beach apartment last month, killing her and Battalion Chief Terryson Jackson, who was on board.
Her family now says the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for her death.
The Wheaton family has filed a notice of claim against BSO, seeking $50 million or the sum of all insurance policy agreements, arguing that the helicopter’s poor maintenance, overseen by the Sheriff’s Office, caused it to break apart in the sky over her Pompano Beach apartment that day.
“This is a public entity that’s charged with protecting and safeguarding people,” Gary C. Robb, the family’s attorney, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “That they would actually fly helicopters over homes and schools and businesses that they knew were not being maintained properly is reckless.”
Robb is the founding partner of the Kansas City-based law firm Robb & Robb, which represented Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, after the crash that took his life.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In the weeks after the crash, Sheriff Gregory Tony said that the county did not listen when he asked for new helicopters.
Though the family is seeking $50 million, their lawyers say that what they really want is to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again.
“They do not want her life and this tragedy to be in vain,” Robb said.
The notice of claim cites a 2017 report that found several safety concerns within the Aviation Unit and recommended that the Sheriff’s Office replace the helicopter that crashed that day. The report found 19 different “areas of deficiency” within the unit.
One of the areas had to do with the organization of parts. The report said that the unit’s own maintenance director didn’t know what parts he had on hand, or how long parts had been stored, a serious safety concern.
Following the report, in 2018, the Broward Sheriff’s Office contracted Digital Airware, an aviation management software that keeps track of parts and maintenance, according to Veda Coleman-Wright, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.
The Wheaton family’s claim also cites Tony’s own comments, including at a June budget meeting with the county commissioners in which he said that the helicopters are often in the air for 1,000 hours between comprehensive maintenance sessions, rather than the recommended 600 hours.
“The bottom line is, helicopter manufacturers required maintenance procedures; these are not optional. You cannot ignore those maintenance time guidelines,” Robb said. “They’re simply required for safe operation of a helicopter. These helicopters were being flown at almost twice the interval of required maintenance.”
In response to questions over whether the helicopter’s maintenance may have improved since the 2017 report, he said, “We can see with our own eyes what happened. And that to me is evidence of a very serious maintenance deficiency. Because engines do not flame out for no reason in flight.”
According to the preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board, the helicopter’s most recent 100-hour inspection was done on May 23, and was operated about 24 hours from its most recent inspection until it crashed.
The pilot, Daron Roche, heard a “bang,” according to the report. An engine fire light turned on, but when he pressed the button to activate the fire suppression system, the temperature on one of the engines kept rising.
Footage shows the helicopter’s tail begin to burn, breaking off in the sky before the helicopter plummets into the apartment building.
The Wheaton family is “not doing very well,” Robb said. “They’re having difficulty processing that this is something that really did happen.”
One of the paramedics on board the helicopter, Mike Chaguaceda, has also retained lawyers. Judd Rosen, of the Miami-based law firm Goldberg and Rosen, which represented victims of the Surfside condo collapse, said that he is looking into the company that did maintenance on the helicopter’s air conditioning in the weeks before the crash.
Spokespeople for the Louisiana-based company, Metro Aviation, said in a statement that “Metro is cooperating with the NTSB and FAA and can not comment on an ongoing investigation.”
This is a developing story, so check back for updates. Click here to have breaking news alerts sent directly to your inbox.