SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — A Utah man who flew a leased helicopter that crashed a year ago in Sevier County, killing his passenger, has pleaded guilty to duping people into believing he was a certified flight instructor.
Matthew Jones, 36, accepted a plea deal on Tuesday, according to court records filed in a U.S. District Court in Utah. He pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud and two counts of operating as an Airman without an Airman Certificate.
As part of the deal, Jones will have his other charges dropped and serve a year in custody, with credit for any time he has already served behind bars since Jan. 8, 2022. After release, he will be under supervised release for 36 months.
Jones is also being ordered to pay back close to $40,000 total in restitution to two people. He had originally faced 16 counts alleging he hatched schemes 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 even though he claimed he was to people.
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.
Between May 2019 and Nov. 2019, Jones said he lied to several people that he was a certified flight instructor. He said he signed an agreement with one of the victims, identified as "T.M." in the plea deal, to teach his son to fly and become a certified pilot. In total, he took nearly $10,000 from T.M.
In the plea deal, he said he also worked with a different person with the initials "J.W." to create the company to provide helicopter pilot certification, pleasure trips, sight-seeing tours, animal spotting, and more. Jones was ordered to pay back nearly $30,000 to J.W. in restitution as part of the agreement.
In the original indictment, the government alleged he advertised on Facebook that he could fly up to 20 people to Park City, Utah., for the Sundance Film Festival. 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 stated.
Julianne Wagner Gerritsen 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 alleged 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 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 southern U.S. 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.
Before pleading guilty to it, he was 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 alleged 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 was taken into 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 alleged.
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 wildland 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.'"