'I'm really angry': Friend of Utah woman killed in Tennessee helicopter crash speaks out

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SALT LAKE CITY — Friends of a Utah woman killed in a Tennessee helicopter crash last month are speaking out because they say the pilot, also from Utah, should not have been flying at all.

And Utah prosecutors agree.

Julianne "Juli" Wagner, 36, of Lindon, was killed when the helicopter crashed by the Great Smoky Mountains in an area south of Cosby, Tennessee, on Dec. 29. She was the passenger of a Robinson R-44 helicopter piloted by Matthew Jones, 35, that went down about eight minutes after it took off from the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport during conditions that were "overcast, drizzly and foggy," according to WBIR in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Jones was hospitalized in Tennessee with undisclosed injuries suffered in the crash, according to the outlet. The station also reported that an FAA database had incorrectly stated that Wagner was the pilot of the helicopter; Jones was at the controls, according to a Cocke County Sheriff's Office report, and Wagner would not have known how to fly the aircraft, friends told the station.

Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah said Jones should not have been flying — and should not have been out of the state.

Federal court records show Jones, of Spanish Fork, was charged with fraud and operating as an airman without an airman certificate on Oct. 13.

Charging documents state that Jones "represented himself to be the owner and operator of Noctem Aviation and a certified flight instructor in helicopters and fixed-winged aircraft." The charges added he represented himself as a certified flight instructor in text messages and social media with a client in 2019.

Prosecutors also allege that he also took money from a joint bank account with the client, and used the money on personal expenses.

While the case remains in the U.S. District Court of Utah, Jones was released from custody on several conditions, including that he wasn't allowed to fly any aircraft or permitted to leave the state without permission. Records show a violation hearing was scheduled for Dec. 22 — a week before the crash — after prosecutors accused Jones of using marijuana on Dec. 5, which would violate the terms of his release, as well.

Gina Blake, a friend of Wagner, told KSL-TV Thursday that Wagner had recently started dating Jones, and that Wagner said days before the crash that the two wanted to open a helicopter tour business.

Blake said she wasn't aware of Jones' federal case until details emerged after the fatal crash.

"I'm really angry," she said. "I feel like he's a con man who conned his way into Juli's life."

Wagner, who would have turned 37 on Sunday, leaves behind a 7-year-old son. She was remembered by friends and family as a "bright, weird, witty, compassionate, independent and free-thinking person," in an obituary posted online.

The obituary added that Wagner enjoyed hiking and camping, and also found that "compassion was her religion."

"She prioritized spending her time and resources fighting for a better world, a world safer for women, LGBTQ+, and racial minorities," the obituary says. "Animal rights, reproductive rights and environmental conservation were also causes close to her heart."

Blake added that Wagner "had a really big, beautiful heart and she loved people." A service to remember her life is scheduled for next week in Provo.

As for Jones, the U.S. Attorney's Office told KSL-TV Thursday that it will depend on his health status as to when he will be brought back to Utah and face prosecution in the federal case. He remained in a Tennessee hospital this week.

A public defender assigned to Jones filed a motion Friday seeking to move a jury trial to a later date. The document notes his trial was scheduled to begin later this month; however, the motion seeks to allow for at least 90 days to allow for Jones to "be prepared to go to trial." The document makes no mention of the crash.

Contributing: Tamara Vaifanua

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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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