NORFOLK -- While stationed with the Navy SEALs, Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Lee Tappen wanted an easy way to fly home to the West Coast to see his wife. The plan he devised now could land him in prison.
Tappen, 35, admitted in federal court Wednesday that he built a plane, on the government's dime, out of parts he ordered through his job. He pleaded guilty to filing a false claim and faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced April 1.
After outlining the charges, U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar asked Tappen if the allegations were true.
"Yes, your honor, they're true," Tappen, wearing his crisp black uniform and polished shoes, replied.
Tappen entered the Navy in 2000 after graduating from Georgia Tech and its NROTC program with a degree in aerospace engineering.
He trained as a pilot and flew with Strike Fighter Squadron 15 out of Oceana Naval Air Station until 2007, when he switched to a career in oceanography. He became a lieutenant commander in 2009.
In 2011, while stationed with Naval Special Warfare Group 2 at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, Tappen was responsible for purchasing materials and equipment. Authorities said he had little oversight.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Rountree told the judge that Tappen began telling colleagues in early 2011 that he was building a plane so he could more easily visit his wife in San Diego.
He began ordering parts for a you-build-it Velocity airplane. Tappen also persuaded the Defense Department to send him to Florida to learn how to fly a drone. Rountree said Tappen really went to Florida to learn how to fly his Velocity.
"Many of the items that Tappen ordered served no apparent military function," Rountree said.
In March 2011, Tappen transferred to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He took his plane with him and rented a hangar to store it.
Back at Little Creek, Tappen's old colleagues began noticing that the parts, supplies and tools they knew Tappen had ordered could not be located. They called in agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
When agents questioned Tappen in California, he initially gave them evasive answers but finally admitted that he used his purchasing authority to buy aircraft parts that he kept himself, Rountree said.
But he said he kept the parts only because they did not work in the drone flight simulator that had been legitimately purchased for the special warfare unit. The agents were still dubious.
"Tappen stated that when placing the orders, he knew in the back of his mind that the parts would be useful for his Velocity aircraft and admitted that he did not try very hard to make them work in the simulator," Rountree said.
Tappen ultimately gave the agents permission to search his house and the hangar, where they found the partially completed Velocity plane and the tools he ordered through the Navy. They also discovered at Tappen's house numerous computers, cameras and other electronics that he had purchased through the Navy while at Little Creek.
Rountree said Tappen cost the government $74,000.
Tappen's lawyer, Todd Stone, said his client had no meritorious defense for the charges.
Tappen is free on a $50,000 bond until sentencing. He remains in the Navy but his current status was not available Wednesday.
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