Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?

Q&A after the film
80 mins
Zachary Stauffer


Lt. Wes Van Dorn, a 29-year-old United States Naval Academy graduate and the married father of two young sons, died when the helicopter he was piloting crashed off the coast of Virginia during a 2014 training exercise. Motivated by her grief, his wife Nicole sought an explanation for the cause of the disaster. Her efforts spurred an investigation that uncovered a long history of negligence and institutional failings around the 53E helicopter—the model Van Dorn was piloting when he was killed, and the deadliest aircraft in the US military. Through incisive reporting and interviews with Van Dorn’s colleagues and family, Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? is at once a poignant picture of one family's tragedy, as well as a revelatory inquiry into the murky inner-workings of the American defense establishment.

“I need to finish Wes’s work. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he was wrong. I don’t know. But the only way to find that out, is to… look into that, and to talk to people, and to see if the worst was actually the truth"

— Nicole Van Dorn, Wes Van Dorn’s widow

"When you know the quality of the people and the work that they want so badly to do well, and you’ve entrusted your child to the military thinking that this is where they’re going to be able to be their best self, and find out they don’t have the best equipment to work with – that is a very hard thing to learn. It’s a very hard thing learn."

— Susan Van Dorn, Wes Van Dorn’s mother

The film was selected as the Best Film by a First Time film-maker at the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival. The director, Zachary Stauffer is a staff producer at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program. Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?, is his first feature documentary. Throughout his career, he’s contributed to a number of documentary films as a producer or DP, many for PBS Frontline, including Money and March Madness (2011), Murdoch’s Scandal (2012), The Child Cases (2011), Post Mortem (2011), the DuPont award-winning Rape In The Fields (2013) and its follow ups Rape On The Night Shift (2015) and Trafficked in America (2018). His short documentary, A Day Late In Oakland (2008), about the murder of a local journalist, was nominated for two IDA Awards, screened at film festivals across the country and was broadcast on KQED in San Francisco. He began his career at Northern Light Productions in Boston. There he served as co-producer of The Special: A Story of an American Anthem (2005), which premiered at the Nashville Film Festival and screened at Silver Docs and other festivals. Stauffer is a graduate of Boston College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he is currently a lecturer.

Zachary Stauffer