Carson Helicopter official pleads guilty to single fraud charge

One of two Carson Helicopter Inc. officials indicted on 22 federal charges related to a 2008 helicopter crash that killed nine people pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud Monday in Medford's U.S. District Court.

Levi Phillips, 46, of Grants Pass and Steven Metheny, 42, of Central Point were indicted in January by a federal grand jury in Medford on charges they schemed to defraud the U.S. Forest Service.

Today, Phillips pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke to a single count of conspiring to defraud the U.S. Forest Service by falsifying information about the weight, balance and performance of four firefighting helicopters, including the Sikorsky S-61N that clipped a tree and crashed in August 2008. Nine people died in what is to date the deadliest helicopter crash involving working firefighters in U.S. history. Seven of those killed were Southern Oregon firefighters.

Phillips' sentencing hearing will take place on April 14. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison and up to $250,000 in fines, according to Clarke.

The false information about the weight, balance and performance of Carson's helicopters was provided so the Merlin-based company could get $20 million in contracts, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Byron Chatfield.

Chatfield read into court record the requirements of Phillips' plea agreement with the government, including his obligation to cooperate fully with the investigation and to testify against Metheny. Otherwise, Chatfield said, the plea agreement will be voided.

"It is solely dependant upon his cooperation," Chatfield said.

Family members expressed relief to see someone accept responsibility for the deaths.

Nina Charlson's 25-year old son, Scott Charlson, was one of the firefighters killed in the crash. Charlson expressed her sorrow over the tragedy but said she is grateful Phillips has admitted his part in the scheme.

"Our one big hope is that this changes things," Charlson said. "We don't want history to repeat itself — the mess that greed has caused."

— Sanne Specht

Read more in Tuesday's Mail Tribune.

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