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Helicopter pilot in fatal Sevier County crash had been ordered not to fly, faces federal indictment

Matthew Jones, 35, faces prosecution in federal court in Utah on counts of mail fraud and operating as an airman without an airman's certificate.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The man flying the helicopter that crashed Dec. 29 in Sevier County, killing his passenger, is facing federal prosecution for falsely claiming he was a certified flight instructor in Utah and had been told by a federal magistrate judge one week before the crash that he was not to fly any aircraft, WBIR has learned.

Matthew Jones, 35, suffered injuries when the leased Robinson R-44 helicopter he was piloting went down on a ridge at about 2,000 feet near the Sevier-Cocke county line. His passenger and business associate, Julianne "Juli" Wagner, died in the crash.

Both were from Utah.

Andrew Choate, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah, confirmed Jones' identity Wednesday and said there's an ongoing investigation. Jones was already being prosecuted in Utah for mail fraud as well as "operating as an airman without an airman's certificate."

Jones is in stable condition at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, where he was transported after the crash the afternoon of Dec. 29 off Apple Tree Lane near Hooper Highway.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said. Sevier and Cocke county authorities referred questions to the federal agency.

The Federal Aviation Administration, in an online database posted last week, stated the pilot died in the Dec. 29 crash and the passenger lived.

That's incorrect, records show.

Jones was at the controls, a Cocke County Sheriff's Office report states. Wagner didn't know how to fly the aircraft, friends told WBIR.

Cocke County officers were the first to speak to Jones at the scene. They could hear him calling for help. A Cocke County sergeant cut Wagner from her seatbelt; she was unresponsive.

The helicopter had been leased from Touchstone Helicopters in California by an Utah-based LLC identified as Lifted. It was Touchstone's understanding the aircraft ultimately would be transported to Utah.

Jones and Wagner were aloft about 8 minutes the afternoon of Dec. 29 after taking off from the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport before the helicopter went down. It flew at an elevation between 1,500 feet and 2,000 feet, according to Flightaware.com. Weather conditions were overcast, drizzly and foggy.

From the flight path, the weather conditions and an eyewitness account, the helicopter may have flown in the clouds, in an area with low visibility.

Wagner would have turned 36 on Sunday.

Her obituary described her as the kind of person "you always wanted to be around, because she made everything brighter, instilled everything with more fun."

She loved the Patriots, beer, hiking, camping and "irreverent comedies." Survivors include a 7-year-old son, the most precious person in the world to her, the obituary states.

UNDER INDICTMENT

A grand jury in Utah indicted Jones, of Spanish Fork, Utah., in October, federal records show.

He represented himself as the owner and operator of Noctem Aviation in Utah and said he was a certified flight instructor in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Starting in about May 2019, according to court records, and continuing through Nov. 21, 2019, he was involved in a "scheme and artifice" to defraud someone identified as "T.M." who wanted to get flight lessons for a son.

"It was the object of the scheme and artifice to defraud for Jones to obtain money from T.M. through false statements, misrepresentations, deception and omissions of material facts, and false pretenses, in that Jones falsely represented himself to be a (certified flight instructor) and certified pilot in helicopters and fix-wing aircraft authorized to provide training and certification through the FAA," the indictment states.

Jones used text messages and Instagram to claim he was a certified flight instructor, records state.

Jones embezzled money from T.M. through a joint bank account at Deseret First Credit Union set up to cover expenses for the flight instruction.

Instead of spending the money for flight lessons, he used it to personal expenses like rent, ATM withdrawals, cell phone bills and personal purchases, authorities allege.

The government alleges Jones "stole" nearly $10,000 in the "scheme."

Utah business records list Matthew Jones, Julie Myers and Tom Myers as principals in Noctem LLC. Julie Myers, of Springville, Utah, was identified as the registered agent.

By September 2020, Noctem's status as an LLC had expired, records show.

Credit: Flightaware
Flight path of the helicopter before its crash.

Jones had been allowed free pending prosecution in Utah -- but under certain conditions.

He was ordered not to leave Utah without permission from a pretrial officer. He was also ordered not to use drugs.

Another order, records show: "Defendant shall not be employed as flight instructor, or fly any aircraft. Defendant shall not be self-employed."

Within weeks, Jones was violating the order, records show.

On Dec. 5 -- 24 days before the helicopter crash -- authorities say he used marijuana.

Jones and his attorney were ordered to appear Dec. 22 in U.S. District Court in Utah before Magistrate Judge Dustin B. Pead.

Jones admitted using marijuana, according to records.

Pead ordered stepped-up testing for Jones and testing to check for THC. He also was ordered to undergo a substance abuse evaluation and get treatment as recommended.

Jones still wanted to fly, however. The government objected, records show.

The magistrate told Jones he still was not allowed to fly, according to federal records.

One week later, Jones was up in the air with Wagner Gerritsen in the hills and mountains of East Tennessee.

It was Jones plan to ultimately fly the aircraft, owned by Touchstone Helicopters in California, to Utah, according to Touchstone.

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