by Sharon Rondeau
(Jan. 4, 2014) — A former shipmate in a position of high responsibility on the USS MARS at the time that CDR Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III was the executive officer in the late 1980s has described in detail how and why individuals from the ship and their wives were sent from the West Coast to Washington, DC on July 4, 1988, paid for by the ship’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) fund.
The group was greeting MARS Capt. Michael Nordeen, who was returning from recovering the remains of his brother, Capt. William Edward Nordeen, who was murdered on June 28, 1988 by the terrorist group “November 17” while serving as a diplomat in Athens, Greece. Other members of the MARS had been dispatched to Athens to serve as escorts for the deceased’s wife and young daughter.
Fitzpatrick was not available to go to Washington, as the MARS had been going through refresher training and his skills were needed there. Instead, his wife attended alone while expecting their fourth child, having canceled a planned family vacation.
In October 1989, Fitzpatrick was accused of stealing $10,000 from the MWR fund used to send the escorts to Greece and the ship’s contingent to Washington, DC. Fitzpatrick’s commanding admiral, John Bitoff, ultimately issued a Letter of Reprimand following a sham court-martial, the outcome of which was predetermined over that Columbus Day weekend.
The United States Navy has known about the criminal malfeasance of Bitoff, his staff, and dozens of other officers who, rather than exposing the crime, have acquiesced to perpetrating the cover-up for more than 23 years. The conspiracy involved the forgery of Fitzpatrick’s name on an alleged “confession” document which was placed into his court-martial and service records and remains to this day. A former Judge Advocate General of the Navy was a knowing participant in the scheme, and current Navy JAG Nanette DeRenzi has been notified of the forgery but provided no response.
In previous reports, Fitzpatrick has detailed how the decision to use MWR funds to send the escorts was reached by the entire crew with no known objections and that the interim captain, Mike Edwards, was fully aware of the departure of the selected crew members and the way in which their passage would be paid. However, in a false statement made in April 1992 to Deputy Judge Advocate Glenn M. Gonzalez as part of an investigation, Lt. Tim Zeller, who was Fitzpatrick’s sole investigator, wrote that “As the investigating officer, LCDR Zeller determined the assertions of the Capt. Edwards [sic] involvement to be unbelievable.”
On page 2 of the three-page memo, Zeller asserts that Edwards denied knowing about the usage of MWR funds to send the escorts.
Contrary to Zeller’s claims, the former MARS crew member has stated that the contingent which flew to Washington to greet Capt. Nordeen was commended by senior officers for their actions, and by extension, all members of the ship. Having been in attendance when Capt. Nordeen debarked at Dover Air Force Base, the former crew member has provided his unique perspective and agreed to serve as a contributor to the book Fitzpatrick and this writer are producing on the court-martial.
Rhe former crew member wrote:
While awaiting the arrival of the aircraft, a Marine colonel, believed to be a flag aide to Admiral [Leon A.] Edney, Chief of Naval Personnel, noticed command master chief Fa’aita and approached him. Perhaps, it was the master chief’s appearance, in full dress whites that got the colonel’s attention. The colonel complimented the master chief on his military appearance and inquired about what his ‘official’ connection was to the deceased. Master Chief Fa’aitathanked the colonel and told him that his CO, Captain Mike Nordeen, was the brother of the deceased, and that USS MARS had sent a contingent consisting of Chaplain Ableson & his wife, Julia; Mrs. Cathleen Fitzpatrick, XO’s wife; ENS Vaughn and the rest of the support team. The colonel asked if we had traveled from Naval Station Norfolk and Master Chief Fa’aita told him that MARS was homeported in Oakland, CA and that’s where the team came from.
The expression on the colonel’s face was enough to satisfy the worth of MARS’ decision for the support team. The colonel soon left, only to return a moment later and asked Master Chief Fa’aita to accompany him to where Admiral Edney, Chief of Naval Personnel, was waiting. After a short introduction, the Admiral clutched Master Chief Fa’aita’s hand and told him how great it was to hear of the MARS contingent and the way the command rallied to support and take care of its own. The Admiral asked how such a trip was made possible given the logistics and money involved. Master Chief Fa’aita informed him of the crew’s solid support for Captain Nordeen and concurrence to use MWR funds. Admiral Edney grinned. Obviously, he understood the meaning of a well-trained crew. He expressed his appreciation for MARS’ dedication and remarked to Master Chief Fa’aita, “Great job, Master Chief, you guys have done the right thing to support your CO. Please pass that to your crew.” The master chief thanked the Admiral and walked back to see the rest of the team.
Command Master Chief Fa’aita and Admiral Edney’s brief meeting lasted two or three minutes, but it represented a huge recognition for the MARS contingent in their support role. A moment later, the colonel returned to inform Master Chief Fa’aita that a place had been reserved for the MARS contingent before the aircraft arrived – it was in the front of the flight line. The MARS contingent gathered quickly to share the latest information; it brought a new high and helped boosted the team’s morale. The team was thrilled. Soon, it seemed that everyone who was within range of Admiral Edney’s remarks was talking about the MARS contingent. Now, they knew something new about the deceased Naval officer and his brother, Captain Mike Nordeen.
Of the situation, Fitzpatrick recounted:
Now you see the other end of the picture and how it was received by a four-star admiral. Everybody who was there knew that the USS MARS crew was there to support their commanding officer. It was a very, very solemn and profound demonstration of our taking care of the Navy family. And Bitoff had the arrogance to charge me with stealing the money used for the wives.
If the chiefs were behind this, then there is no question but that the entire command knew. Mike Edwards, as a commanding officer, had to know, and he did.
I was actually the commanding officer of the ship; Edwards was there as a figurehead. The ship saw me as a commanding officer because Edwards was a “foreigner.” Refresher training is like going into a battle; it’s as if the ship is preparing to go in and engage an enemy fighting force. That’s how refresher training is conducted; it is a major battle problem. You have to pass it so that the ship gets permission from the fleet commanders involved to deploy the ship overseas. In other words, you have to successfully complete REFTRA to deploy.
When you have this kind of very important evolution and people have been trained up in it for months and months as a crew, it’s a very important consideration as to who is going to be absent from the ship. Generally speaking, nobody is allowed to be absent during refresher training; everybody is held on board. It’s usually not longer than a couple of weeks, so people plan around it, knowing that leave is not necessarily going to be granted during that period of time.
Now we had a new dynamic, which was the death of Capt. William Nordeen, and the commanding officer was ordered off of the ship. That was huge. Then on the heels of the skipper being ordered off the ship during REFTRA, we were considering letting other crew members leave the ship to attend to what we saw as the more important concern, which was to provide a presence at the funeral. So we had to be very careful as to who we chose to send. The Master Chief was the guy who was picking the people who we were sending on the trip East.
Edwards would have had no idea about who could go and who could stay. That was the job of Command Master Chief Fa’aita and me. We came up with the names, and I went in and briefed Mike Edwards, as the figurehead commanding officer, and said to him, as the real CO, “We can send these people and we will not be harmed, injured or handicapped in any way through refresher training.” So Edwards had to know. People in the Navy know. Mike Edwards had to know who was leaving the ship; he had to give his permission before they could leave.
Once they left the ship and every day that we were at sea, which was every day after that, Mike Edwards was presented with an attendance report called a “muster report.” At the twelve o’clock report, the captain is handed a series of briefings to include the muster report. So every day that the ship was at sea, Mike Edwards was told in writing, “These men are gone.”
The Command Master Chief on the ship is essentially an admiral for the enlisted personnel, an E-9. He is a very important person on the ship, probably second to the commanding officer. He is the advocate for all the enlisted men on the ship, and we sent the Command Master Chief off on the funeral party along with the ship’s chaplain and others. There can be no question but that Edwards knew all about this, and for him to suggest that at any point he didn’t know is a lie. That’s what Bitoff and Zeller said.
People reading the book who have been through the process are going to say, “Edwards knew everything.”
The muster report is this important: When you get up in the morning, one of the first things you do when you’re at sea is to take a muster report. This is hours before the captain would get the 12:00 reports. If somebody is missing at the morning muster, the first thing the ship does is to report the missing man to the bridge, and the officer of the deck then is under standing orders to call a “man overboard.” “Man overboard, man overboard!! All hands stand by where the ship is coming about.” Sound six short blasts from the ship’s whistle! Honk, honk! honk! and there are six short blasts. You notify any ships in the vicinity. Even if you are alone at sea, you sound six short blasts on the ship’s whistle, hoist the Oscar flag (man overboard), turn around in a full rudder current, increase the speed of the ship and race back down the wake of the ship looking for that missing man. It’s a really big deal, and I’ve been through it a couple of times.
The muster report is one of the most important things that we do on a ship, so it was impossible for Mike Edwards not to know.
The former crew member concluded his recollection of the greeting of Nordeen at Dover with:
The Captain expressed his gratitude and appreciation for the tremendous support. With a busy schedule and more people to see and meet, Captain Nordeen and his family left in a chauffeured limousine. The large crowd slowly disappeared, each according to their own schedule and to where they had come. MARS contingent returned to the hotel and prepared for the return trip west; their mission completed – support one of their own.
Rather than facing discipline from the Navy, Zeller was promoted following Gonzalez’s inquiry into Fitzpatrick’s court-martial. In a 2006 radio interview with journalist Kit Lange, Zeller boasted, “You think what we did to Fitzpatrick was bad; well, you haven’t seen anything yet, lady; let me tell you some stories.”
Zeller has evaded The Post & Email’s attempts to discuss the Fitzpatrick court-martial. While Bitoff and Fitzpatrick’s defense counsel, Kevin Anderson, have spoken with us, they insisted that it be off the record.
An investigator from the NCIS identified Anderson as the forger of Fitzpatrick’s name to the Response to Letter of Reprimand based on the similarity of typeface, paper, and line spacing present in other documents Anderson had generated. For at least two decades, Anderson has been working as a deputy prosecutor in Kitsap County, WA but has himself gone unprosecuted, along with all others who participated in the conspiracy to oust Fitzpatrick from the U.S. Navy.