Thursday, April 14, 2016

Man pleads guilty to operating an unregistered aircraft

CHEYENNE — A Colorado man has pleaded guilty to a federal charge of operating an unregistered airplane in a case stemming from police seizure of over $250,000 cash from a Cody hotel room two years ago.

Scott Michael Lewis of Englewood, Colorado, pleaded guilty Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson in Cheyenne. The agreement calls for prosecutors to drop another charge of conspiracy to operate an unregistered aircraft.

Lewis, 27, faces up to 3 years in prison at his June sentencing. However, Johnson remarked, “This is a case where there very well may be arguments for a probationary sentence.”

Federal prosecutors agreed to allow Lewis to enter a conditional guilty plea. The conditional plea means Lewis could withdraw it if he can get a federal appeals court in Denver to reverse Johnson’s decisions denying requests to suppress evidence and dismiss the charges.

However, Johnson warned Lewis that he’s not likely to get the appeals court to reverse Johnson’s decisions after pleading guilty.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne filed criminal charges in January against Lewis and co-defendant Gilbert Wayne Wiles Jr. of Denver alleging conspiracy to operate an unregistered aircraft and operation of an unregistered aircraft.

The charges came nearly two years after authorities in Cody seized a Cessna airplane and over the cash from Lewis and Wiles.

Wiles is set to stand trial on Monday before Johnson in Cheyenne.

Authorities allege Wiles had purchased the Cessna plane in Texas for $130,000 cash in 2013, and instructed the seller to make out the bill of sale to a limited liability company incorporated in New Mexico. Wiles told people who serviced the plane that he and Lewis were working for an aerial photography business, prosecutors allege.

Prosecutors say a worker at Yellowstone Regional Airport first notified authorities that the men appeared suspicious after they landed there on Feb. 27, 2014. The worker told police that the pilot didn’t radio the airport before landing and sunshades were lowered over the windows even though the plane was about to be stored in a hangar.

A police officer testified last week at a suppression hearing that a drug dog alerted to the plane but no drugs were found. The officer said he interpreted the dog’s actions to mean the plane had been used for transporting drugs in the past. Prosecutors say officers found the cash in a hotel room the men had rented in Cody.

Prosecutors are pressing a separate civil case seeking to forfeit the cash and plane. Prosecutors allege the assets were involved in the illegal drug trade even though prosecutors haven’t filed criminal drug charges.

Lewis has asserted claims in the civil case asserting ownership of the plane and the cash while Wiles has not filed any claim. As part of his plea on Wednesday, Lewis forfeited any interest in the plane.

Lewis said in court he landed the Cessna at the Cody airport. In response to a question from federal prosecutor Thomas Szott, Lewis said, “I did know it was supposed to be registered.”

Defense lawyer Joe Bustos of Cheyenne represents Lewis. Bustos declined comment after Wednesday’s hearing.

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