Pilot loses helicopter as part of plea agreement
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- A pilot who caught the attention of authorities by stashing gas cans in northern Arizona won't be able to get behind the controls of an aircraft for the next two years and will lose the helicopter he owned under an agreement with prosecutors.
William Stokely, a part-time Flagstaff resident and Oklahoma businessman, said his charitable work that included giving free aerial tours will suffer from not being able to fly. But he said he pleaded guilty in federal court to displaying a false or misleading tail number on his helicopter to avoid any possibility of a felony conviction and agreed to the government's seizure of the helicopter.
``I'm a good guy, I'm not a criminal,'' Stokely told The Associated Press.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security began investigating Stokely in 2011 after receiving a report that he was filling up gas cans in Winslow and leaving them out in the high desert. Investigators checked registration records for the helicopter he was flying and discovered that one of the letters on the tail number had been changed from a ``Q'' to an ``O'' with black tape and that Stokely didn't have a valid certificate to fly.
The 69-year-old, self-described explorer said Tuesday that he would place fuel on private property in Arizona to keep his helicopter light and to refuel quickly. Had the case gone to trial, Stokely would have testified that he placed tape over the tail number to avoid smearing anything on the lettering as he was cleaning the outside of the fuselage and didn't completely remove it, his attorney Colin Campbell said.
Prosecutors contended that Stokely did so to hide his lack of a valid airman's certificate.
Stokely's right to fly helicopters as a private pilot has changed over the past 25 years, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. He first received a certificate in 1987, which he surrendered three years later for violating rules that prohibit flying too close to another aircraft and at low altitude, and recklessly operating an aircraft.
Stokely successfully reapplied for the certificate in 1991 but again surrendered it voluntarily in 2008 after failing a test administered by the FAA. He received a certificate as a student pilot the same year, but it expired in 2010 after Stokely failed another series of flying tests.
Last year, the FAA denied a medical certificate to Stokely, which he needs to lawfully fly. Court documents show he asked the FAA to reconsider.
Stokely's plea earlier this month means sentencing in the case will be deferred for two years. Prosecutors said they'll move to dismiss the indictment against Stokely if he adheres to the plea agreement. They declined to comment on the case Tuesday, saying it isn't fully resolved.
A second charge against Stokely for not having a valid certificate to fly the helicopter will be dropped under the plea agreement.
Stokely had stored his helicopter at a hangar in Winslow during the summer months and returned it during the winter to Tulsa, Okla., where he and his wife started Stokely Outdoor Advertising in 1978. His family also runs the Stokely Event Center in Tulsa.
Campbell said the eventual dismissal of criminal charges against Stokely was the best possible outcome in the case.
``He's had a marvelous life, he's a very successful businessman, he's done a lot of charitable work,'' Campbell said. ``It's unfortunate, and he's taken responsibility. He's looking forward to getting this all behind him.''