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It isn't unusual that a small company in Melbourne received such a large military contract. AWS and Presidential are owned by the same parent company as Blackwater USA, a private security firm that has won contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Blackwater's CEO and co-founder is Erik Prince, a politically connected Michigan businessman who has donated substantially to Republican causes since 2000.
Blackwater and a handful of other companies have made millions as private contractors fighting the nation's wars. Last year, Blackwater's pivotal role in the war came to the fore when newspapers printed a photograph of the charred remains of four Americans, all Blackwater contractors, hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq.
In June, the families of the Blackwater 63 crash filed a negligence lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Orlando against AWS, Presidential, and Blackwater. A recent military report of the plane crash seems to support the families' claim. It found that Presidential violated its contract by, among other things, not providing adequate equipment or sufficiently training pilots.
The case is significant because a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision bars soldiers from filing such negligence claims against the government. The decision eventually became known as the Feres Doctrine, providing nearly full immunity to the military no matter how egregious its negligence.
But in the Presidential Airways crash, because the military privatized the operation, the government isn't the one at fault. Private companies are.
"Because the Pentagon elected to contract out these services to a civilian corporation on a no-bid, $34 million contract, the families have the same remedies in the law as they would have against any other private company," says Bob Spohrer, an aviation attorney in Jacksonville who represents the families of the soldiers killed on Blackwater 63.
"Presidential and Blackwater will argue that the Feres Doctrine applies to them as well," Spohrer continues. "But they have a weak case, because they clearly violated the terms of their contract with the government. The investigation found that they did not have the necessary equipment and were using poorly trained pilots."
So far, Timothy L. Childrey, a former Army helicopter pilot who is now vice president of Presidential Airways, has been tightlipped with the families of both the fallen soldiers and the dead contractors. Childrey, who declined to comment for this article, paid English, Hammer, and Rowe $400 to $650 per day, depending on the assignment, while they were in Afghanistan. And although the plane crashed nearly a year ago, he has yet to explain to the families what happened, says Kim Rowe, wife of Blackwater 63's onboard mechanic.
"The war is about one thing for them money," says Rowe, of Weston, Ohio, near Toledo. "We've been left in the dark. Presidential won't tell us anything. Blackwater won't tell us anything."
For his part, Childrey hasn't even read the government's crash report. Asked during a deposition to explain why he had not done so, Childrey responded callously: "It has not been provided to us."
"My husband had four kids," Rowe says. "They deserve to know what happened."
Today, Blackwater's soldiers-for-hire aren't only in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're also patrolling the streets of New Orleans, rifles in hand.