SAN DIEGO (AP) — A southern California medical examiner ruled the death of a Navy SEAL trainee a homicide, saying his instructor repeatedly dunked him during a pool exercise while the 21-year-old was struggling, according to an autopsy report released Wednesday.
Seaman James Derek Lovelace died of drowning May 6 in Coronado, California, with a heart problem as a contributing factor, the autopsy found. The homicide ruling does not necessarily mean a crime occurred, and the instructor has not been charged.
Lovelace of Crestview, Florida, who was in his first week of training, showed signs he was having difficulty treading water in fatigues, boots and a dive mask filled with water. While struggling, he was seen on surveillance video being dunked at least twice by an instructor, the report said.
He also slipped underwater several times as the instructor followed him around, continually splashing him for about five minutes, the report said. Several other instructors also splashed him.
Instructors are supposed to create adverse conditions by splashing, making waves and yelling at the students but they are reportedly advised not to dunk or pull students underwater, according to the report.
The instructor accused of dunking Lovelace has been assigned to administrative duties while the military investigates, Navy spokesman Lt. Trevor Davids said. He declined to identify the instructor or say how long he had been in that position or a SEAL.
The Navy briefly paused its training to review safety standards, such as how to recognize when someone is in trouble, but it has not changed its pool exercises, Davids said.
At one point in the training, a fellow trainee tried to help Lovelace keep his head above water. Video appears to show the instructor dunking Lovelace and later pulling him partially up and out of the water and then pushing him back, the autopsy report said.
Shortly after being pulled from the pool, Lovelace lost consciousness and was taken to a civilian hospital, where he died.
The medical examiner said some may consider the death an accident, especially in a “rigorous training program that was meant to simulate an ‘adverse’ environment.”
But “it is our opinion that the actions, and inactions, of the instructors and other individuals involved were excessive and directly contributed to the death,” the report said.
Lovelace was reportedly not a strong swimmer, investigators said. He had joined the Navy about six months before his death.
The medical examiner noted that he suffered from asthma and an abnormal enlargement of the heart, but called the problems contributing factors.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.