SAN DIEGO — The Navy will not pursue criminal charges in the drowning of a 21-year-old sailor from Crestview who was repeatedly pushed underwater by an instructor during Navy SEAL basic training in California, authorities say.
Commander Liam Hulin, head of the Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command, found that no crime occurred during the May 6, 2016, training that killed Seaman James Derek Lovelace, a Navy statement said Monday.
Hulin’s conclusions came after his review of a Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe into Lovelace’s death 11 months ago during a pool exercise in Coronado, near San Diego.
“Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Lovelace family,” Hulin said in the statement. “No loss of life in training is an acceptable loss.”
According to Ryan Andrews, a Tallahassee attorney who is representing the Lovelace family, Hulin visited Lovelace's father, James, at his home in Crestview over the weekend to share the report prior to its release to the public.
"The Navy made a special point of coming to see Mr. Lovelace at his request," Andrews said in a telephone interview with the Daily News. "Commander Hulin spent a substantial amount of time with him and offered to come out as many times as necessary."
Despite that consideration, Andrews said the family is "devastated" by the decision not to press charges. The decision comes on the heels of the Navy's initial contact with the family in May to inform them that Lovelace had died in what they described as an accident. The family was contacted a second time when a medical examiner determined Lovelace's death to be a homicide.
"They were hoping for the best," Andrews said of the Navy's investigation. "To have it drawn out for almost a year has been like having to relive it all over again for the third time."
Lovelace was in his first week of SEAL training at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado when he lost consciousness during a training exercise in a pool.
In July the San Diego County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide after finding Lovelace, a graduate of Crestview High School, had been dunked at least twice by an instructor while struggling to tread water in full gear.
The findings contradicted information in the Navy's initial report that was shared with the Lovelace family, Andrews said. In the days after the medical examiner's report was released, members of Lovelace's family expressed their desire to discover the truth about what happened to Derek.
"We were just misled," Lovelace's sister Lynsi Price told NBC News in July. "We were told and made to believe that this was a tragic accident. ... We trusted these men."
The medical examiner's report also revealed Lovelace had an enlarged heart that contributed to his death. The report also found that Lovelace had an abnormal coronary artery that has been associated with sudden cardiac death, especially in athletes.
It’s unclear from the autopsy report how much Lovelace’s heart abnormalities contributed to his death, although the principal cause of death was listed as drowning — not a heart condition.
Lovelace, a stand-out baseball player at Crestview who also played in college, was in excellent physical condition, his family has said.
"The Navy is insisting Derek died of a heart condition," Price said in a Twitter message sent to a Daily News reporter Tuesday. "Derek had no such condition, and we plan on proving that one day in court. Derek was in amazing health; he was the healthiest person I knew."
Lovelace would have undergone a medical exam and physical fitness test before being allowed to take part in SEAL basic training, a six-month program so grueling that 75 percent of candidates drop out by the end of the first month.
Sailors who want to become SEAL candidates must be able to pass a test that includes swimming 500 yards in 12½ minutes, doing 50 push ups in two minutes and completing 50 curl-ups in two minutes. During basic training, they run, climb, swim in frigid water and perform other drills, often with little or no sleep.
While the family has been left "despondent" by the Navy's decision, they have not given up on their quest to hold whomever was responsible for Lovelace's death accountable, their lawyer said.
"The family has authorized me to move forward with a civil action," Andrews said. "We want to see if we can uncover what we believe the truth is, and what we believe the evidence in the (medical examiner's) report demonstrates."
For Price, the Navy's latest findings have done nothing to bring closure to her family.
"He is missed so much," she said of her brother. "I’m trying my hardest with my family to (keep) fighting for justice."