Former Carson Helicopters Vice President requests release from prison, fearing COVID-19

Steven Metheny’s falsification of records for a helicopter led to the deaths of nine firefighters and crew members in 2008

Carson Helicopters

This article was first published at Wildfire Today.

Steven Metheny, 50, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters has requested compassionate release from prison because he fears he will contract COVID-19 while serving time in the federal prison in Lompoc, California.

He filed the request in October and on November 2 Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Potter wrote in a response, “The mere existence of COVID, without more, is not sufficient to justify compassionate release.” Potter argued that Metheny’s weight is the only eligible health condition that increases his risk of COVID-19. “But, obesity alone should not result in defendant’s release,” Potter wrote.

Mr. Metheny’s falsification of records for a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter under contract to the U.S. Forest Service led to the deaths of nine firefighters and crew members in 2008.

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.

During the trial in 2014 defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Judge Aiken who presided over the trial dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Mr. Metheny.

In June, 2020 the same judge refused to reduce Mr. Metheny’s sentence when he argued he had ineffective counsel. He said he would not have pleaded guilty in 2014 if his attorney had told him that crash victims were going to be allowed to testify at his sentencing, or that he’d be ordered to repay tens of millions of dollars in restitution upon release from prison. Judge Aiken called Mr. Metheny’s claims that his defense lawyer made false promises “palpably incredible.”

The next hearing on Mr. Metheny’s motion for compassionate release is a phone conference scheduled for November 13 in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.

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 Pat and Kelly.

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