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Sailor, allegedly strangled to death by airman, remembered as caring

Aug. 19, 2014 - 06:43PM   |  
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dmitry Chepusov receives airwarfare specialist certification during his deployment on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis in early 2012.
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dmitry Chepusov receives airwarfare specialist certification during his deployment on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis in early 2012. (Courtesy of the Chepusov family)
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Shortly before his death, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dmitry Chepusov received a medal for helping save a soldier’s life.

A military citation credited Chepusov with “internal courage” and “mental focus” for recognizing the symptoms of a near-fatal drug overdose and getting the soldier to a hospital, said Chepusov’s brother, Dennis Bushmitch.

On the day he died — allegedly beaten and strangled by an Air Force staff sergeant who was having an affair with the sailor’s wife — Chepusov was again looking out for a co-worker, Bushmitch said.

“Our speculation, which is grounded in evidence, is that is how he ended up being in that ill-fated apartment. He was worried about a drunk co-worker, and was making sure he would get home,” the victim’s brother told Air Force Times.

“He was genuinely one of those people who really cared about others,” Bushmitch. “He cared about his military family ... to the degree he would put his life and well-being on the line for others.”

Staff Sgt. Sean Oliver faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of murder, assault, adultery and making a false official statement, the Air Force said Aug. 13.

Third Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, who referred the charges to court-martial Aug. 8, decided against seeking the death penalty against Oliver “based on the evidence,” according to the email. No further details were provided.

Chepusov’s brother supports the decision to forgo a capital case, which could free up evidence German prosecutors have withheld pending assurances from the U.S. military that it would not seek the death penalty. German authorities were the first to take custody of Oliver and the victim’s remains.

“Our family doesn’t view the death penalty as an effective form of punishment. We believe that significant jail terms are a much better way for an individual to redeem himself or herself and contribute to society,” Bushmitch said. But, he said, “we did ask the German government not to use that [the death penalty] as a stopping point of releasing evidence to Americans.”

Udo Gehring, a spokesman for the Kaiserslautern prosecutor’s office, said Aug. 14 his office still has not received word from the U.S. that Oliver will not face a death sentence.

“There’s no official letter or something that says the situation has changed,” Gehring told Air Force Times. Until there is, “our constitution forbids us to cooperate.”

A day later, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, spokesman Kilian Bluemlein said the U.S. had begun official notification.

'Patriotic' immigrant

Chepusov was 9 when his family immigrated from Ukraine, living first in New York and then New Jersey. His father got a job as a journalist and cameraman for a TV station that targeted Russian-speaking immigrants, said Bushmitch, the eldest of four boys. His mother worked as a web developer and went on to own her own business.

“It’s not an easy childhood as a first-generation immigrant,” Bushmitch said. Chepusov “spent a lot of time improving his English language skills.”

He was a prolific writer, penning short stories and poetry, said his brother. Chepusov also kept up his native language skills. “He wanted to make sure both his Russian and Ukrainian remained on a good level. Not just listening and comprehension but also writing, to the degree he could be useful one day to an intelligence community.”

Chepusov showed an early interest in law enforcement “and all these James Bond type of things,” Bushmitch said.

“Obviously I love him and therefore find that he was an incredible and amazing individual,” another brother, Andrey Chepusov, wrote in an email. “But looking at him objectively ... I can honestly say that he was an amazing person — smart, thoughtful, funny, warm, giving, hardworking, morally sound, brutally honest and the best friend to those who gave him friendship.”

Dmitry Chepusov became a U.S. citizen at 18 and studied for a year at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York before spending some time traveling. On a trip to Israel, Bushmitch said, Chepusov saw the impact of American power and policy.

“He became quite patriotic,” he said. Chepusov was 23 when he joined the Navy in 2005.

“He was looking at the Navy as a mechanism to do good for humanity and also to further his educational goals,” Bushmitch said.

Chepusov clung to his interest in law enforcement and “saw himself returning to the justice system after he finished his Navy career. He had his master rifle and master pistol certifications,” Bushmitch said. Though a mass communication specialist, Chepusov also served on military police detail when he had the opportunity.

The young sailor served two deployments aboard the USS John S. Stennis in support of the war in Afghanistan, where in addition to his broadcasting and mass communication duties, he “was also doing a lot of firefighting duties and equipment maintenance duties and security detail on the ship,” Bushmitch said.

Bushmitch, an Army defense acquisition civilian, joined his brother on one of those deployments. “I witnessed how hard he worked and what discipline he had.”

Chepusov went to work for American Forces Network Europe at Ramstein in April 2012. At what would be the sailor’s last assignment, he produced 1,200 television and radio stories and contributed to 240 television and webcast products, said his brother, reading from his final Navy citation.

When AFN Europe downsized, Chepusov took on a number of duties in addition to his primary role as noncommissioned officer in charge of news — all while working toward his bachelor’s degree.

“He was somebody who was quite direct. That’s highlighted often by people. If he thought something stayed in the way of improving the product or the mission, he would be very direct in delivering that. He had very good leadership qualities. Every reference that was coming back from his co-workers [after his death] talked about how much he cared and how much time he spent improving the quality of the news stories AFN would put on air,” Bushmitch said.

In his spare time, Chepusov supported The Venus Project, a social project that promotes cultural change to end enduring societal ills such as war and poverty, Bushmitch said. “He was always a life-affirming individual who genuinely cared about people.”

The case against Oliver

Chepusov worked with the staff sergeant accused of killing him at AFN Europe. Prosecutors have said Oliver was having an affair with Chepusov’s wife at the time of the murder — and that Oliver’s fear of the relationship being discovered by their chain of command drove him to commit the crime.

Oliver’s friend and co-worker, Army Spec. Cody Kramer, has been charged as an accomplice in the killing. Authorities contend Kramer knew days in advance that Oliver planned to kill Chepusov and that he helped carry out and cover up the murder.

Three days before Chepusov died in an off-base apartment, Oliver allegedly met with Kramer, Chepusov’s wife and Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas Skinkle at a Kaiserslautern restaurant, where they discussed Chepusov’s life insurance policy.

Chepusov’s wife, Karla Alejandra Zolezzi, stood to receive $400,000 upon her husband’s death.

A day after the meeting, Kramer posted a cartoon on Facebook illustrating a love triangle that ended in murder, the prosecution said.

Chepusov was allegedly strangled and beaten in Skinkle’s kitchen while at least three other people were at the apartment — Kramer, Skinkle and Air Force Staff Sgt. Shao-Lung Ping, according to testimony during Kramer’s Article 32 hearing.

So far, only Oliver and Kramer face charges in Chepusov’s death. Oliver was arrested by Kaiserslautern police following a Dec. 14 traffic stop. Chepusov was discovered unresponsive in the passenger seat of the car Oliver was driving.

When German authorities handed over Chepusov’s remains nearly a week later, certain evidence was missing, including a portion of the victim’s throat. Armed forces regional medical examiner Army Maj. Dor Mitchell Franco testified at Oliver’s Article 32 in July she could not definitely say how Chepusov died without the evidence, although his injuries appeared consistent with strangulation, according to Stars and Stripes, which covered the hearing.

“We are concentrating on getting him justice,” Bushmitch said. “We understand this is a complex investigation and a complex process, and we are certainly patient. At the same time, we are tormented and anxious in seeking justice. It’s not just a tremendous personal loss, it’s a huge loss to the Navy and its investment in this bright individual.”

Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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