A Legal Clusterf$$k- Murder on Ice

It was July 16, 1970, and Mario Escamilla was furious. The 33-year-old native of Santa Barbara, California, had just learned that a coworker, Donald “Porky” Leavitt, had broken into his trailer and stolen his most prized possession: a 15-gallon jug of homemade raisin wine. Determined to put an end to such theft, Escamilla grabbed a rifle and stormed off to confront Leavitt. He found the thief with his boss, Bennie Lightsy, getting roaring drunk on a potent mixture of 190-proof grain alcohol, grape juice, and Escamilla’s wine. Escamilla waved his rifle in the men’s faces, warned them to keep their hands off his property, and grabbed what remained of his wine and stormed back to his trailer. Some minutes later, Escamilla heard a knock on the door. Expecting it to be Leavitt out for revenge, Escamilla cocked his rifle and aimed it at the door. But the man who entered the trailer was not Leavitt, but Bennie Lightsy, who had come to reason with Escamilla. Though the two men were longtime friends, they soon began to argue and a fistfight broke out. Unknown to Escamilla, the rifle he had chosen was faulty, and in the midst of the struggle the weapon went off, hitting Lightsy square in the chest. Lightsy collapsed to the floor and bled out within minutes.

While at first glance this might seem like a clear-cut case of homicide – or, at least, involuntary manslaughter – there was one big catch: this deadly incident took place not in some American trailer park but on a massive iceberg floating in the Arctic Ocean. Mario Escamilla didn’t know it yet, but he had just unleashed one of the most tangled and confusing legal cases in United States history – one whose consequences still resonate to this day.

Fletcher’s Ice Island – also known as T-3 – was an 11 kilometre-long, 5 kilometre-wide iceberg discovered by the United States Air Force in the early 1950s. Thought to have calved off a glacier on the eastern side of Canada’s Ellesmere Island, the iceberg was named after Air Force Colonel Joseph Fletcher, the first person to land an aircraft on its surface. Caught in a current known as the Beaufort Gyre, T-3 slowly drifted through the waters north of Canada and Alaska, completing a clockwise circuit every 2 years. From March 1952 onwards, the Air Force and the U.S. Navy established a series of research stations on T-3 to monitor arctic weather conditions and conduct geophysical and oceanographic research. These stations were a direct response to the Soviet Union, who had maintained meteorological drift stations on arctic ice floes since 1937. The iceberg was periodically occupied until 1979, when the last research station was abandoned. T-3 then slowly drifted through the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard, entering the Atlantic Ocean and finally melting away in 1983.

But while built and maintained by the U.S. military, the outposts on T-3 were largely staffed by civilian contractors. Mario Escamilla, for instance, was an electronics technician from the General Motors Defense Research Laboratory, Porky Leavitt a meteorologist from the U.S. Navy Arctic Research Laboratory, and Bennie Lightsy an employee of the United States Weather Bureau and the appointed director of the station.

Conditions on T-3 were…primitive, to put it mildly. Even by 1970, the station where Escamilla and his 18 colleagues lived and worked consisted of little more than a diesel power plant and cluster of prefabricated wooden Jamesway huts and trailers which served as laboratories and living quarters. In the winter the sun did not rise for six months, with temperatures dipping below -50º Celsius and winds reaching speeds of 250 kilometres an hour. Radio and satellite communications were spotty at best, and during the summer the ice runway turned to slush, meaning no aircraft could land and the station could only be resupplied by parachute drop.

But the greatest danger facing the station’s inhabitants was boredom. Outside of work, there was very little to do, and for entertainment the station had only a handful of books, a few 16mm film reels, and two eight-track cassettes, all of which the technicians and scientists had read, watched, or listened to dozens of times over. In such an environment, alcoholism was rife, with many inhabitants spending their off hours going on raging benders with homemade wine or high-proof alcohol brought in by resupply flights. One particularly mean drunk was Porky Leavitt who, after guzzling his way through his own liquor supply, armed himself with a meat cleaver and went on a rampage through the station stealing his colleagues’ stashes. It was this history of violence, Escamilla later claimed, that drove him to grab a rifle from the station’s common store before confronting Leavitt.

Following Bennie Lightsy’s shooting, the incident was reported to the mainland by radio and an investigative team dispatched to T-3. The team, composed of Navy and Coast Guard intelligence officers and an assistant District Attorney, took two days to reach the iceberg via Thule Air Force Base in Greenland – a harrowing journey through brutal arctic storms. The team then grabbed Escamilla, the rifle, and Lightsy’s frozen body and whisked them back to the United States. And here, dear viewer, is where things start to get very, very complicated.

At first, the whole case seemed fairly cut-and-dry; after all, Escamilla freely admitted to shooting Lightsy. He really could not have done otherwise; there wasn’t any room in the tiny trailer for another assailant, and the incident was partially witnessed by Charles Parodi, Escamilla’s roommate and the man who had informed him of Leavitt’s theft; and Richard Scattolini, who was standing outside the trailer when the rifle went off. And the case might very well have been a simple one, were it not for one thorny issue: that of jurisdiction. For what no legal expert seemed able to determine was who exactly had legal authority over Ice Island T-3, and thus who – if anyone – had the right to try Mario Escamilla.

While T-3 was administered by the U.S. Air Force, as a civilian contractor Escamilla could not be subjected to a military court martial. And while Escamilla was a U.S. citizen, the crime had not been committed on sovereign U.S. territory. Theoretically, the U.S. could have made a territorial claim to T-3, as it had with dozens of uninhabited, fertilizer-rich guano islands in the 19th Century. Unlike those islands, however, T-3 was temporary and would eventually melt away, meaning no nation could claim the iceberg as its own. Furthermore, in 1909, the U.S. State Department had rejected a proposal by Admiral Robert Peary to annex the North Pole, officially endorsing the view that no nation could claim sovereignty over frozen Arctic waters. So who, then, had jurisdiction over T-3? The country with the strongest claim to the region was Canada, which has long claimed sovereignty over a large swath of the Arctic Ocean. In 1907, Canadian senator Pascal Poirier proposed what he called sector theory, in which sovereignty over arctic waters was determined by drawing straight lines from a country’s borders to the north pole; whatever land or water lay between those lines was that country’s sovereign territory. Conveniently, this system gave Canada control of the entire Arctic Archipelago and the surrounding waters. However, sector theory was never formally adopted by the Canadian government, and Canadian sovereignty over its arctic waters has been actively contested by several nations – particularly Russia. At the time of Bennie Lightsy’s killing, T-3 was located 84 degrees North, and 106 degrees West – far outside the then three-mile limit of Canada’s official territorial waters. Furthermore, while international convention recognizes bodies of ice like glaciers as sovereign territory while they are still attached to the land, once they become detached they become res nullius – no man’s land.

Not that Canada wanted to get involved anyway. Upon learning of the case, the Canadian Department for External Affairs informed the U.S. State Department that it wished to avoid interfering with a criminal trial simply to resolve a complex point of international law. The country thus waived any jurisdiction it might have had, while making it clear that the outcome of the case would have no bearing on its territorial claims to the arctic. The T-3 murder case was entirely a United States matter. Or was it? Even if T-3 was not sovereign territory, the first place Escamilla landed after leaving the iceberg was: Greenland. Thus, as some legal experts argued at the time, the case officially fell under the jurisdiction of Denmark, which administers the island nation. However, like Canada, Denmark also waived its jurisdiction over the case.

These decisions left the T-3 case in an unprecedented state of legal limbo, with many lawyers doubting any country had the legal authority to try Escamilla. As one legal expert noted:

“It may shock the layman to learn that there may be parts of the world in which possible murders may go untried.”

One proposed solution to this conundrum was to treat T-3 as a seagoing vessel and prosecute the case according to the 1958 Convention on the High Seas. But as you have probably guessed by now, this solution was not entirely satisfactory either. While the Arctic Ocean certainly counted as the High Seas, maritime law as written only applies to navigable waters – which the dense ice floes surrounding T-3 most certainly were not. Then again, rapid advances in technology were quickly changing what it meant for a body of water to be “navigable”. In the same year as the Convention on the High Seas was written, the world’s first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, completed a crossing of the arctic while submerged under the polar ice sheet, a feat that would have been impossible for a conventional surface vessel. Furthermore, the practice of lodging a ship in pack ice and letting it drift with the currents – a method pioneered by polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen in 1893 – technically made even the densest ice pack “navigable.”

In the end, the U.S. State Department turned to another principle of maritime law known as the State of The Flag Rule. This rule states that the primary legal authority aboard a vessel at sea – whether made of ice or not – is the state under whose flag said vessel flies. So entrenched is this principle in international maritime trade that even if a vessel is sailing through a state’s territorial waters, said state has no authority to prosecute crimes committed aboard the vessel unless those crimes directly affect the state’s own territory and citizens. Thus, as Escamilla was a U.S. citizen serving at an outpost flying the U.S. flag, the United States had personal if not territorial jurisdiction over the case.

But even this breakthrough raised still further questions, namely: which U.S. state should Escamilla be tried in? While Escamilla was a resident of California, he was ultimately arraigned and tried in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia – for the simple and expedient reason that this was the state in which he had first landed after departing Greenland. The trial was presided over by Judge Oren Lewis, who indicated that in the absence of a clear precedent, his judgment would not be final, and that he expected the matter to be resolved on appeal.

But even with the trial finally underway, there was still no end to the thorny legal questions. Escamilla’s defence team questioned whether their client could be fairly judged by a jury of his peers in Virginia, arguing that the only people fit to judge his actions in context were back on Ice Island T-3. The research station, they claimed, was a uniquely harsh environment which placed its inhabitants under extreme stress. The station had no law enforcement presence, and doors were left unlocked due to the risk of fire. Under such circumstances, property rights were protected using weapons or not at all. Given Porky Leavitt’s previous drunken rampage with a meat cleaver, it was therefore argued that Escamilla was fully justified in bringing a rifle when confronting him. The defence also called on character witnesses to testify as to Escamilla’s usually docile nature, as well as a firearms expert who confirmed that the rifle Escamilla had used was faulty and could easily be set off without pulling the trigger.

But Judge Lewis was having none of it, instructing the jury to ignore the supposedly unique conditions on T-3 and limiting the number of character witnesses the defence could call. In the end, the jury found Mario Escamilla not guilty of second-degree murder on the high seas, but did find him guilty of involuntary manslaughter on the high seas. Escamilla was sentenced to three years imprisonment, but released on bail pending the outcome of an appeal. Said appeal was made on two grounds: first, the lingering doubts about ultimate jurisdiction over the case; and second, errors in the conduct of the trial itself – particularly the limiting of character witnesses. The appeal was brought before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which heard the case on August 17, 1970. The panel of six judges was divided on the issue of jurisdiction, and thus upheld the original provisional ruling that the case could be tried by an American court on the basis of maritime law. However, they also upheld the appeal on the basis of procedure and ordered a retrial, instructing the judge and jury to consider the unique conditions on T-3 and the testimony of character witnesses. With these new provisions in place, a second jury acquitted Mario Escamilla of all charges and he was set free.

The Escamilla case caused a stir among U.S. legal experts, who pointed out that had Escamilla, Leavitt, and Lightsy been citizens of Canada or another country, the viability of a trial would have been even more in doubt and may very well have led to an international incident. In 1984, however, the legal loophole responsible for this ambiguity was closed – in the U.S, at least –  by Amendment 7 to Title 18 of the United States Criminal Code, which extended Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction to:

“Any place outside the jurisdiction of any nation with respect to an offence by or against a national of the United States.” While the Escamilla case might seem like a freak, one-off occurrence, the incident is of direct relevance to another no-man’s-land: outer space. Currently, the only body of law governing human activities beyond earth’s atmosphere is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. However, this treaty only regulates the overt actions of nations, prohibiting, for example, the seizing territory or the building of military bases on the moon or planets and the stationing of nuclear weapons in orbit. Also, spacecraft have generally been considered the sovereign territory of whichever nation launched them, meaning that the same earth-bound rules concerning territory and jurisdiction apply in outer space as well. Thus, if an American astronaut murders a German astronaut in the Japanese module of the International Space Station, then the case would most likely fall under Japanese jurisdiction. This neat legal arrangement, however, will rapidly fall apart as the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin introduce more and more private spacecraft and astronauts to the final frontier. Though registered to their country of origin, such private craft are not currently considered sovereign territory, and thus lie in a murky legal grey area. Without a body of law to regulate the behaviour of private citizens in space, it is only a matter of time before we get a repeat of the 1970 Escamilla case – in space.

Even the closest earthbound analogue to space – Antarctica – is of little help in this case. While the 1959 Antarctic Treaty prohibits any nation from stationing military forces on Antarctica, seven main signatory nations – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom – maintain territorial claims on the continent for use in peaceful scientific research. These territorial claims have no permanent residents, so the inhabitants of the various scientific research stations on the continent remain citizens of their respective sovereign nations. Therefore, any crimes committed in any of these territories fall under the jurisdiction of the administering nation. And there have been a lot of crimes – including a 1984 case where a stir-crazy doctor burned down Argentina’s Almirante Brown Station after being forced to stay another winter, and a 2018 case where an engineer at the Russian Bellinghausen Station stabbed a welder for spoiling the endings of the books he was reading. While these cases exposed the difficulty of dealing with crime in such remote locations – for instance, for lack of a proper jail cell the stab-happy Russian engineer had to be locked up in the station’s Orthodox chapel – all were relatively uncomplicated from a legal standpoint, involving citizens of a single nation on territory belonging to said nation.  But in the wild west of outer space, with hundreds of spacecraft and astronauts from dozens of nations flying around, the legal situation is likely to get very complicated, very fast.

So if you’re looking for a promising new career that looks impressive on a business card and sounds sexy at a cocktail party, might we recommend “space lawyer”? After all: in space, no-one can hear you testify. 

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Expand for References

Kean, Sam, How Not to Deal With Murder in Space, Slate, July 15, 2020, https://slate.com/technology/2020/07/arctic-t3-murder-space.html


The Law: Murder in Legal Limbo, TIME, September 28, 1970, http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,909646-1,00.html


Haskins, Caroline, An Attempted Murder at a Research Station Show How Crimes are Prosecuted in Antarctica, Vice, October 25, 2018, https://www.vice.com/en/article/xw9bg3/an-attempted-murder-at-a-research-station-shows-how-crimes-are-prosecuted-in-antarctica


Chu, Jane, Someday, Someone Will Commit a Major Crime in Space, Slate, August 28, 2019, https://slate.com/technology/2019/08/space-crime-legal-system-international-space-station.html


Sharp, Gregor, A Brief History of Lines in the Arctic, The Arctic Institute, March 20, 2018, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/brief-history-lines-arctic/


United States of America, Appellee, v. Mario Jaime Escamilla, Appellant, 467 F.2d 341 (4th Cir. 1972), Justia US Law, https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/467/341/154348/


US Arctic Drifting Stations (1950s-1960s), Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project, https://www.whoi.edu/beaufortgyre/history/history_usdrift.html


Kovalchik, Kara, True Crime: Murder on an Arctic Ice Floe, Mental Floss, July 22, 2010, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/25261/true-crime-murder-arctic-ice-floe


Pharand, Donat, State Jurisdiction over Ice Island T-3: The Escamilla Case, https://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca//arctic/Arctic24-2-82.pdf

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