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Death of 'tough' vet stuns fellow boxers, family; copter crashed while filming for Discovery Channel

| Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, 3:26 p.m.
Michael Donatelli of White Township, Indiana County, was in the Army Special Forces. He died in a helicopter crash while filming a TV reality show in California on Feb. 10, 2013. Submitted

A Special Forces veteran and accomplished amateur boxer from Indiana County who died in a helicopter crash while filming a reality show in California was remembered Monday as a military tough guy who cared deeply for his family.

Michael Donatelli, 45, of White Township and two others were killed Sunday in a predawn helicopter crash while filming a military-themed reality TV show for the Discovery Channel, officials said.

Donatelli was a cast member in the unnamed show that was filming on Polsa Rosa Ranch, north of Los Angeles. Officials said the Bell 206 JetRanger crashed around 3:40 a.m. Pacific Time on Sunday, killing him, pilot David Gibbs, 59, and crew member Darren Rydstron, 46.

The cause and other circumstances surrounding the crash are unknown, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said.

“We are all cooperating fully with authorities. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families,” Discovery Channel said in a statement.

Donatelli and his wife, Grisel, have five children, ages 3 to 21, and one grandchild.

“He was a good son, a good husband, a good brother to his brother and sister,” said Bill Donatelli of White Township, the veteran's father. “It's very difficult. ... We're getting through it as a family.”

Bill Donatelli said his son flew to California about a week ago to shoot six episodes for the show and had planned to be on location for six weeks.

“He'd give you the shirt off his back. It wasn't real easy to get on his good side, but once you were on his good side, he was a person who'd treat you like gold forever,” said John Zemrose, president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania's boxing club, where Donatelli coached.

Donatelli earned a 69-6 record in the 1980s boxing for the Indiana County Athletic Club and twice fought future world champion Michael Moorer of Monessen in Golden Gloves competition. He won a bronze medal in the Junior Olympics in Lake Placid in 1984 and coached boxing at clubs in Washington, Miami and Puerto Rico.

Zemrose said Donatelli would berate, yell and curse at boxers to weed out those who weren't cut out for the demanding sport.

“He would basically try to make you cry, if you want to put it nicely,” Zemrose said. “(His death) is kind of shocking because of how tough of a person he was mentally and physically. ... It's pretty hard to deal with. I can't believe it.”

Zemrose said Donatelli showed him the pilot for the reality show, which he described as an urban, covert-operations show featuring survival missions and espionage. He said it was “the coolest show I've ever seen.”

A 1985 Indiana Area Senior High School graduate, Donatelli joined the Army after high school and served four years in the 1st Ranger Battalion before becoming a Washington, police officer.

He re-entered the service, joining the Special Forces as an engineer sergeant and served four tours in Iraq as a member of the Army's elite Delta Force.

After retiring from the service, Donatelli and fellow veteran Mike Evok in 2008 founded AMJ Security and Vehicle Training, a consultant firm based in North Carolina.

“In the world we used to be in where we did a lot of kicking in doors ... he was kind of like my No. 2 man,” Evok said. “He put on the tough guy act, but when it all came down to it, he had a real big heart.”

Evok said he hasn't decided whether he'll continue the business without Donatelli.

“We spent all that time in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, we retired. And then to get killed in a simple crash — it's hard to believe,” Evok said.

Bowser-Minich Funeral Home in Indiana will handle the arrangements.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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