MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) — An Oregon man has pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with the deadliest helicopter crash involving working firefighters in U.S. history.
One of the victims, 25-year-old Scott Charlson, was a 2001 graduate of Lifegate Christian School in Eugene, Ore.
Levi Phillips, 46, of Grants Pass faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced in April. As part of a plea deal, he agreed to testify against another man, 42-year-old Steven Metheny of Central Point.
Phillips was the director of maintenance for Carson Helicopters Inc., reporting directly to Metheny, a former vice president.
Prosecutors say that when the U.S. Forest Service solicited bids for helicopters to be used in firefighting operations, Metheny submitted proposals with altered performance charts and falsified weight and balance records. Then, after winning the $20 million contract, the incorrect information was given to pilots who had to calculate the maximum payload capacity during firefighting operations.
The Aug. 5, 2008, crash near Weaverville, Calif., killed the pilot, a Forest Service safety inspector and seven firefighters with Grayback Forestry of Merlin. The co-pilot and three firefighters were hurt. Witnesses said the helicopter took off more slowly than normal before clipping trees and then crashing into a hillside.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation showed the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter weighed more than 19,000 pounds when pilots tried to take off from a mountaintop clearing during the Iron 44 wildfire in Shasta-Trinity National Forest. If Forest Service guidelines had been followed, investigators said, the weight shouldn't have exceeded 15,840 pounds.
Phillips pleaded guilty Monday to a single charge of defrauding the Forest Service. Metheny remains charged with 22 counts of mail and wire fraud, making false statements to the Forest Service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight, and theft from an interstate shipment.
A message left for Metheny's attorney, Steven L. Myers, wasn't immediately returned.
Relatives of the victims expressed relief to see someone accept responsibility.
Nina Charlson's 25-year old son, Scott Charlson, was one of the firefighters killed. Charlson said she is grateful that Phillips, who created the false charts, admitted his part in the scheme.
"Our one big hope is that this changes things," Charlson told the Mail Tribune. "We don't want history to repeat itself — the mess that greed has caused."
"Fly darlin', fly darlin', fly darlin', fly darlin"
As dusk approached August 5, 2008, one of the Sikorsky helicopters Carson leased to the Forest Service touched down near the front lines of the Iron Complex forest fire burning in northern California's Trinity Alps.
Fire bosses had decided to pull crews off the front lines for safety's sake.
Ten firefighters from Oregon trundled on board the Sikorsky to get a lift back to camp with the pilot, co-pilot and a Forest Service employee.
The Sikorsky S-61N had been airborne less than a minute when the chopper's main rotor lost power during takeoff.
The co-pilot of a helicopter ferrying firefighters implored "Fly darlin', fly darlin', fly darlin', fly darlin ..."' as the chopper lost power and fell out of the air in a rugged area of Northern California last year, according to a cockpit voice recording transcript released Wednesday.
It hit trees and crashed into a remote mountainside in Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Besides pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, Ore., the dead included Jim Ramage, 63, a U.S. Forest Service inspector pilot from Redding, Calif.; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, of Eugene, Ore.; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; David Steele, 19, of Ashland; and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, of Cave Junction.
In 2010, the National Transportation Safety Board said Carson Helicopters misled the Forest Service and FAA about the capabilities of the aircraft. As a result, the pilot took off carrying more weight than the helicopter could handle.
"This accident had more to do with Carson's actions than the oversight entities' inactions," NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said. "But the FAA and the Forest Service didn't hold up their end of the deal to oversee Carson's actions."
Scott Charlson told his parents the spring before the crash that he was going to be a firefighter to pay his way through college.
Charlson graduated Lifegate Christian High School in Eugene back in 2001.
"This was going to be his last year in school at Southern Oregon University studying to be a Sports Journalism major and was his first year working as a fireman," Scott's younger brother Jake wrote in 2008.
"He loved to play hockey and was a huge fan of the 49ers football team and hoped one day to be a sports-caster for ESPN.
"He was full of life and he lived to the fullest without regret, never looking back, but always pushing forward. He was a major influence to all of his friends, there was never a dull moment to be had around Scott. He strived for better things in his life and pulled everyone along with him to better things whether they could see it at the time or not, but we all ended up seeing it in the end.
"The impact he has had on the community surrounding him is too great to spell out in words; to know it, you must have known him, and I am sorry for the people who can not have that opportunity. The memories we have of him are only good and he will live on in all of our hearts and minds forever.
"I hope that all makes sense and is somewhat useful. The love that my family and I have for my Brother is un-expressible, and to be able to tell everyone about this amazing man makes this situation at least somewhat liveable. Thank you for everything."
An Oregon jury ruled in March 2012 that a problem with an engine was responsible for the 2008 crash of a helicopter that killed nine firefighters during a wildfire in Northern California.
The jury in Portland reached its verdict after a pilot who survived and the widow of one who was killed sued General Electric for $177 million.
The plaintiffs argued the company knew the engines it made for the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter had a design flaw making them unsafe.
GE countered that the helicopter crashed because it was carrying too much weight when it took off after picking up a firefighting crew on the Iron 44 wildfire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, Calif.