An ex-military contractor pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter yesterday for accidentally killing an Air Force doctor two years ago with a forklift at Al Dhafra Airbase in the United Arab Emirates.

Ari Taylor, 32, was distracted on his cell phone while operating a forklift when he struck and killed Capt. Kelliann Leli in Nov. 2020, according to a Department of Justice news release.

According to court documents, an investigation found that Taylor, a civilian military contractor from North Carolina who was employed by Vectrus Systems Corporation, had almost nine seconds to prevent the collision. Although Leli was 50 feet away, Taylor did not take any measures to avoid hitting her as he drove through a busy area of the airbase.

An expert found that “the forklift’s braking system was in proper working order and that it would have taken [Taylor] less than one second to apply the brakes and that the forklift would have come to a stop within six feet,” court documents said. The contractor reportedly ran to the nearby medical clinic for assistance after realizing what happened.

The 30-year-old Leli, from Parlin, New Jersey, was assigned to the 60th Healthcare Operations Squadron at Travis Air Force Base in California and was on her first deployment in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, a Department of Defense release said. She was a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and earned her commission in 2012 before completing her medical program, according to

Leli was posthumously awarded the meritorious service medal, which was presented to her parents and her spouse, Air Force Capt. Jimmy Leli, a KC-10 Extender pilot in the 6th Aerial Refueling Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, according to the airbase.

Following the incident, the governors of both New Jersey and California honored Leli by ordering their respective state flags lowered to half-mast.

In March 2021, in response to the tragedy, leadership at Al Dhafra Air Base ordered the construction of sidewalks in high-traffic pedestrian areas, according to an Army release.

“The team that is working on this project feels good knowing that the project is going to make a difference,” Army Staff Sgt. David Griffin, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the project, said in the release. “We are hopeful that the work we are doing will improve the pedestrian safety on the base and avoid any injuries or loss of life in the future for the base occupants.”

Taylor pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and is scheduled to be sentenced by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina on April 23, 2023. The ex-contractor could have faced up to eight years in prison, but according to his plea agreement a sentence of up to one year is now being recommended.

The 380th Air Expeditionary Wing was not immediately available for comment.

Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media

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