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Pilot in fatal Sevier County chopper crash faces charges he duped victim, defrauded others

Matthew Jones was at the controls in December 2021 when the leased helicopter went down in sketchy weather near the Cocke County line.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Utah man who flew a leased helicopter that crashed last year in Sevier County, killing his passenger, faces charges he duped the woman and others in various illegal would-be business deals.

Matthew Jones, 36, was set to appear Tuesday afternoon in Salt Lake City federal court on a 16-count indictment alleging he hatched schemes last fall before the December 2021 crash to start a business teaching people how to fly and to take people on trips.

Jones, however, was not a certified flight instructor, the government alleges.

Furthermore, because of medical problems including past seizures, the U.S. Army veteran shouldn't have been operating the leased 2005 Robinson R44 chopper that went down near Cocke County, court records state.

And, just days before the crash, a federal magistrate judge in Utah had explicitly told him he was not to operate any aircraft, records show.

Jones, however, had his own ideas, the government alleges in the August indictment.

Last year he set in motion plans to go into the flying business through a firm he called Lyfted LLC with an acquaintance, Julianne Wagner Gerritsen. He got money from her and set up a joint credit card account that included her name to fulfill his scheme, the government alleges.

In one instance, he advertised on Facebook that he could fly up to 20 people to Park City, Utah., for the Sundance Film Festival, according to the government.

A woman named "Y.B." approached him last year about such a trip but ultimately called it off because "something seemed off," the August indictment states.

Jones also arranged with someone identified as "N.M." to provide flight instructions so he could become a certified pilot. While lying to the student, Jones provided him with instruction on three or four occasions.

Gerritsen, identified as "J.G." in the indictment, was riding with him as a passenger on the afternoon of Dec. 29, 2021, when their leased helicopter went down in sketchy weather. He'd been warned against taking off that day at the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport because of cloudy, rainy conditions as well as his unfamiliarity with the hilly, mountainous terrain, federal aviation records state.

Jones and Gerritsen were picking up the helicopter for business purposes, according to federal authorities.

The chopper went down minutes after he lifted off with Gerritsen,  killing her and permanently paralyzing him.

BRAIN SEIZURES, FRAUD CHARGES

The August indictment alleges Jones falsely represented himself as a certified flight instructor and a certified pilot authorized to train and offer flight instruction to people in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

He also had a history of seizures and had had a stroke in June 2020. He'd gotten a "20 percent disability rating" from the military for having seizures.

In December 2021, before the crash, Jones sent federal aviation authorities application materials to fly.

He didn't disclose "his history of seizures, strokes and marijuana usage," according to the indictment, which would have prevented him from securing licensure.

Jones received months of medical treatment and rehabilitation in the South after the helicopter crash. In mid June, the U.S. Marshals Service moved him back West to face prosecution in a pre-existing federal case.

At the time of the crash, he was already awaiting trial in Utah on counts similar to the August indictment.

He's alleged in May 2019 to have falsely claimed he was a certified flight instructor while signing a contract to train someone who wanted ratings to fly fixed-wing aircraft as well as helicopters.

The government alleges Jones claimed on Instagram and in texts to have certification status.

"Furthermore, Jones fraudulently withdrew approximately $10,000 from a bank account dedicated for flight instruction purposes, and instead used the funds to pay for rent, a cell phone and miscellaneous purchases from Walmart," the government alleges in the 2019 case.

Jones is now in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service in Nevada pending prosecution in Utah, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City.

While awaiting prosecution last year, before the crash, Jones tested positive for marijuana usage. At that point, a U.S. magistrate judge denied his request to be able to leave the state and told him he couldn't fly aircraft, court records state.

He ended up traveling to Tennessee anyway, federal prosecutors allege.

He told a Nebraska community college publication in 2014 that he'd been in the Army and had suffered a brain injury in Iraq while on patrol when an improvised explosive device went off in 2007. 

After being discharged from the Army in 2009, according to his LinkedIn page, he went to work for the U.S. Forest Service as a wild land firefighter. It was then he fell in love with helicopters, he said.

On his page, he described himself as an "entrepreneur, Self Motivator and Do'er!"

"I'm a strong believer in 'you can do anything you put your mind to.' "

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