Last week a judge granted an early release from prison for Steven Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters. Mr. Metheny’s falsification of records and other illegal acts led to the overloading of a helicopter that crashed while attempting to take off from a remote helispot in Northern California in 2008, killing seven firefighters and two pilots.
In August, 2015 he began serving what was to have been 12 years and 7 months in prison, but was released after six years and one month.
He pleaded guilty in 2014 to one count each of filing a false statement and of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud while submitting documents to obtain $20 million in firefighting contracts with the U.S. Forest Service.
He had filed for compassionate release from prison at least twice, first in November, 2020 citing his fear of contracting COVID-19, which was refused by a judge. In March of 2021 he filed again, saying his health was deteriorating. Over the next six months information was submitted indicating that he had chest pain, an abnormal echocardiogram, vision problems, high blood pressure, and migraine headaches.
U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken who was the judge in the trial, denied the first request but in September, 2021 approved the second one saying that his time in prison, especially with his health problems, have “been harsher than the sentence originally contemplated at the time of sentencing.”
Nina L. Charlson, mother of 25-year-old Scott Charlson of Phoenix, Oregon who died in the crash, said, “If it was a stupid mistake we would still have heartache but we all make mistakes. It was not a mistake. He plotted and planned to lie to the government.
“After the crash happened he plotted and planned to cover his plot up, Charson said. “It took the National Transportation board one and a half years to dig up the truth about what he did. It took 5 more years to get him sentenced to prison in September, 2015 for 12 years and 7 months. He served 6 years which is less than half of what he was sentenced for.”
Mr. Metheny was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. He was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 for attempting to defraud the government out of more than $32 million and has been serving time in Lompoc, California.
Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.
Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there was “intentional wrong-doing” by Carson Helicopters that under-stated the weight of the helicopter and over-stated its performance in the documents they provided to the U.S. Forest Service when bidding on their firefighting contract. The NTSB estimated that the actual empty weight of the helicopter was 13,845 pounds, while Carson Helicopters stated in their contract proposal that the weight was 12,013 pounds. For the purpose of load calculations on the day of the crash, the pilot assumed the weight to be 12,408 pounds, which was 1,437 pounds less than the actual weight estimated by the NTSB. According to the NTSB, for the mission of flying the firefighters off the helispot that day, the helicopter was already over the allowable weight even without the firefighters on board.
In Mr. Metheny’s plea agreement there was an admission that the helicopters had not actually been weighed.
Killed in the crash were pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54; USFS check pilot Jim Ramage, 63; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charlson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; David Steele, 19; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21. The copilot and three other firefighters were seriously injured.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Nina and Kelly.