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
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.”