UPDATE: Carson Helicopters VP sentenced to 12-1/2 years in Iron 44 crash that killed 9
The vice president of a defunct Grants Pass helicopter company was sentenced to 12½ years in federal prison this morning for lying about the carrying capacities of his firm's helicopters, including the overloaded Sikorsky S-61N that crashed at a Northern California fire in 2008, killing nine people.
In a courtroom packed with family and friends of the victims, Chief District Judge Ann Aiken said Metheny's repeated fraud and subsequent attempt at a cover-up merited the inflated sentence for his guilty plea to one count each of filing a false statement and of conspiracy to defraud the Forest Service.
Aiken read in court the Boy Scout oath to Metheny, then spent 15 minutes chiding him for his actions. "What you did in this case was the ultimate betrayal of every oath you've ever taken," Aiken said. "And for what? To win a contract when you weren't really even qualified to respond.
"There were so many decision places where you could've done the right thing," she said. "I kept thinking, 'What were you thinking?'"
Aiken then gave Metheny 151 months in prison to think about his actions, followed by three years' probation. His attorney, Steven Myers, had argued for three years of house arrest and probation.
Prosecutors hoped for a sentence of nearly 16 years in prison for Metheny. Aiken's computation of a complicated sentencing formula hammered Metheny on most counts but softened the severity on a few categories enough to lead to the slightly lighter sentence.
Metheny was given until Aug. 17 to report to federal prison, likely the correctional facility in Sheridan.
Co-defendant Levi Phillips is also scheduled to be sentenced this morning. Phillips, who was Carson's director of maintenance and reported directly to Metheny, has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and has cooperated in the government's case against Metheny.
According to prosecutors, Metheny filed false documents for Carson Helicopters to gain $51.7 million worth of Forest Service contracts, including the Iron 44 fire that led to the deadliest crash involving working firefighters in U.S. wildland firefighting history.
Carson's deliberate understatement of the weight of its helicopter and lapses in safety oversight caused the crash on Aug. 5, 2008, in California's Trinity Alps Wilderness Area, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation found. NTSB officials said the helicopter weighed more than 19,000 pounds when pilots tried to take off from a mountaintop clearing. If Forest Service guidelines had been followed, investigators said, the weight shouldn't have exceeded 15,840 pounds.
Seven of the nine killed were Southern Oregon firefighters. The crash also killed two pilots and injured four others.
Prosecutors alleged in court documents that Metheny was motivated by "pure greed" to lie about the carrying capacities of Carson's helicopters and that he tried to scuttle the investigation into the crash and stole from his own company.
"His fraudulent conduct was the result of pure greed that eventually placed the lives of numerous pilots and firefighters in extreme danger," according to the memorandum written by Assistant U.S. Attorney Byron Chatfield. In a court hearing on Nov. 24, Metheny's attorney said Metheny's guilty pleas do not constitute admission that his crimes contributed to the crash.
The crash occurred on a nearly 6,000-foot-high mountaintop near Weaverville, Calif., while the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter was ferrying out firefighters battling the Iron 44 fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
A 25-page indictment against Metheny and Phillips says that roughly between March and October 2008, the two men submitted bid proposals on behalf of Carson Helicopters that contained information they both knew was false.
The bid proposals contained falsified weight and balance charts and falsely altered performance charts that were submitted so the Forest Service could determine whether the helicopters met minimum contract specifications, according to court documents.
Metheny knowingly distributed the false information to pilots and in helicopter flight manuals for use in the field, the documents state.
The falsified charts were then used by pilots, unaware of the false nature of the charts, in performing firefighting flight operations, including calculating the helicopter's maximum payload capacity during firefighting operations, thereby endangering the safety of the helicopters in flight, court documents state.
Those who died in the crash were check pilot Jim Ramage, 63, Redding, Calif.; command pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, Lostine; firefighter David Steele, 19, Ashland; firefighter Shawn Blazer, 30, Medford; firefighter Scott Charlson, 25, Phoenix; firefighter Matthew Hammer, 23, Grants Pass; firefighter Edrik Gomez, 19, Ashland; firefighter Bryan Rich, 29, Medford; and firefighter Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, Cave Junction. Four others were injured.
Prosecutors' sentencing memorandum also details how Metheny was stealing from his own company.
He used Carson funds to buy jewelry and other personal items for his wife and himself and to renovate their residence, the memorandum states. He also sold Carson helicopter parts and allegedly stole helicopter parts and eventually returned them but tried to divert suspicion toward a rival, "revealing his self-centered and vindictive nature," the memorandum states.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.