Virginia pilot pleads guilty to drone buzzing of Salem firefighters

drone firefighters

Words (nearly) fail. A Salem, Virginia, man has pleaded guilty to repeatedly buzzing a group of firefighters with his drone, a craft he subsequently demanded police return after it crashed inside the station where the rattled responders had taken refuge. The defendant now risks a three-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.

The defendant pleaded guilty November 12 to harassing the firefighters using an unregistered drone, according to a statement by the US Attorney of the Western District of Virginia prosecuting the case. The events took place way back in July, 2019, when a UAV repeatedly flew at and dove toward a group of responders standing on a driveway outside Salem’s main fire station. The buzzing continued long enough – up to 10 minutes by some accounts – for a pair of the targeted workers to try swatting the UAV down with a garbage bag, then blast it with a hose.

The swooping finally ended when the drone struck objects inside the station the pilot had flown it into in pursuit of the fleeing firefighters.

As dismally mindless as that outrageous piloting was on its own, the defendant took the idiocy one step farther. Several hours after his dive-bombing drone crashed and was seized for an investigation into what had happened, the operator visited the local police station demanding the UAV’s return – first claiming a friend had been at the controls, then admitting he’d been the culprit. 

He repeated that avowal in his plea hearing on Friday according to The Roanoke Times.

“I know I’m guilty,” the 39-year-old replied to the judge’s request he offer his own expression of culpability, while still offering no clue of his motives in the assault. “I was the one operating the drone irresponsibly.”

Even more so, it turns out, because the owner-pilot had failed to register the craft as required under Federal Aviation Administration rules. That, prosecutors said, is “a felony that is punishable up to three years in prison.” An additional nice touch is that, due to its proximity to the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport, the firehouse targeted also lies within restricted airspace. 

Despite the multiple infractions involved, prosecutors admitted during the proceedings that the various violations were so rare they had no sentencing guidelines to refer to. That, presumably, was one reason it took two years to bring the case to Friday’s the plea hearing.

Another may well be that though a complete moron when navigating his UAV, the defendant is possibly slicker when it comes to legal wrangling. Although the felony violation of failing to register his drone carries a maximum prison sentence of three years, prosecutors agreed to seek no incarceration as part of the negotiated plea bargain. 

As with most of those agreements, however, it’s the presiding judge who has the last say on sentences ultimately meted out. Meaning, a stint in a federal clink is still a possibility for the defendant, as is a fine that could reach as much as a quarter of a million dollars.

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