The Death Of Captain Odom

A Dangerous Mission Ends Fatally

Three months ago, Captain Jennifer Odom, four other American soldiers and two Colombian airmen died during a mission in Colombia. Since then, Odom's family has been trying to find out what happened.

Dan Rather reports for 60 Minutes II.

Captain Odom, a highly regarded West Point graduate and an experienced Army pilot, was on a secret reconnaissance flight in Colombia, one of thousands of American anti-drug missions flown in the region.

Odom's DeHavilland Dash Seven spy plane was painted in civilian colors. She and her crew - dressed in civilian clothes, according to sources - were part of the joint American-Colombian effort to fight drug suppliers and ideological guerrillas.

The back of their plane was loaded with sophisticated surveillance equipment, apparently to take pictures of drug fields and traffickers.

Learn more about the conflict in Colombia from this September 60 Minutes II story "The Secret Warriors."
It was dangerous work. Capt. Odom's husband Chuck says that his wife specifically talked about the difficulties of flying at night, in the mountains. These were exactly the conditions of the crash. Her plane crashed into a jungle-covered, steep mountain in a hostile part of Colombia controlled by communist guerrillas.

The U.S. Army still refuses to give specific details about the mission or explain why the plane flew at night. At first Capt. Odom's family couldn't even get basic information about the crash.

The Army says it took a special operations team five days to locate and reach the remote crash site. Most of the victims' remains were eventually recovered. They then were examined by Colombian pathologists, placed in coffins in Bogota and flown back to the United States, to an Air Force Base in Dover, Del.

President Clinton released only a brief written statement on the crash. He did not name any crew members. Capt. Odom's crew was made up of all Army men: Capt. Jose Santiago, Pfcs. Ray Krueger and Bruce Cluff, and Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Moore.

Chuck Odom, Jennifer Odom's husband, thinks his late wife deserves better treatment.
Chuck Odom, a retired lieutenant colonel who served in the Army for 20 years, wonders why the crash seems to have been shoved under the rug. To him, his wife and the other crew members are heroes who should be celebrated. The government has not done that, he says.

"At some point we, as Americans r human beings, need to understand that when a person dies honorably, then they should be recognized for that," he says. "Publicly, by their fellow human beings."

After his wife's plane crashed, Chuck Odom moved from Texas to Maryland to be with his wife's parents. Capt. Odom is buried in her family's plot near Brunswick, Md.

Chuck Odom was led to believe that he had buried all of his wife in the cemetery. But later to his surprise, more of her remains were sent home in a small box. "A third part was left in the aircraft in Colombia before it was blown up and destroyed," he says.

The Army told the family that a Special Forces team had to destroy the plane after they found it, to keep drug traffickers or communist guerrillas from stealing its high-tech surveillance equipment.

Capt. Odom's parents, Janie and John Shafer - who believe they've been kept unnecessarily in the dark about the cause of the crash - are now afraid they'll never know what happened.

Shafer thinks that the Army blew up the plane to eliminate evidence for a future investigation.

The Army says that the official investigation may take several more months and will likely conclude the crash was caused by mechanical failure or pilot error. Chuck Odom thinks that the plane was shot down.

At the First Baptist Church in Brunswick everybody knew Jennifer Odom.

No one was more shocked by her death than her grandmother, Rita Webber. She got a postcard from Jennifer the day she died. "I wrote Jennifer every day of my life for 11 years," says Webber.

"I'm still writing to her. I write her a little bit each night. Tell herÂ…I love her and miss her," she adds.

The death of Capt. Odom has been hard to accept for the whole family. "It's been really difficult the last two months," says her father. "I have a hard time to get motivated."

Capt. Odom, born and raised in Brunswick, was a star. She studied hard to become the valedictorian at Brunswick High.

Most people in the area knew her. Her ancestors have been dairy farmers in the area for more than a hundred years.

When she died, she was far away from Brunswick.

But like most Americans, Brunswick residents had no idea that this Maryland farm girl who went to West Point was constantly flying supersecret, very dangerous missions over the Andes Mountains above the thick jungles of Colombia. They did not know that her final mission for the U.S. Army was part of a rapidly escalating vicious war, which the United States has been getting into even deeper.

In Colombia, well-organized, heavily armed communist guerrillas now have control of at least a third of the Colombian countryside. They are deeply involved in the drug trade, making hundreds of millions of dollars a year off drugs to finance their revolution. Capt. Odom's plane crashed in an area controlled by the guerrillas.

As 60 Minutes II reported last month, the Clintn administration has already poured money, resources and military equipment into fighting the war on drugs and the guerrillas in Colombia. Under pressure from the Republicans in Congress, the president's drug czar wants to up the ante, spending a billion dollars in the region in the next 12 months.

Chuck Odom says that his wife thought the United States was losing the war. She thought more resources were needed, he says. He thinks that the crash is being hushed up, because the U.S. public would not support an effort that would end up killing Americans.

And because more American lives could be lost in Colombia as the United States escalates the war on drugs and since the nature of the conflict is changing, Chuck Odom thinks that the White House should start leveling with the American people.

"What are we hiding here?" he asks. "What is it [they're] not telling me as a taxpayer, what we're doing down in Colombia? We've sacrificed Americans in our whole history for our cause."

"And if this happens to be our cause today, at this point in time, then that's OK. But let's be up-front about it. We don't have to hide it," he adds.

Produced by David Kohn