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'I'm really angry' | Friend feels woman killed in helicopter crash was 'conned' by pilot

Juli Wagner died in a Dec. 29 Sevier Co. helicopter crash. A week prior, a federal magistrate judge instructed her pilot boyfriend not to fly.

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — A friend said the woman killed in a helicopter crash in Sevier County was "conned" by her pilot boyfriend, who the National Transporation Safety Board said ignored multiple safety warnings about flying and who had been ordered not to fly by a federal magistrate judge one week before the Dec. 29 crash.

Julianne "Juli" Wagner, 35, died when the leased Robinson R-44 helicopter that Matthew Jones was piloting went down on a ridge at about 2,000 feet near the Sevier-Cocke county line in overcast, drizzly and foggy conditions.

"Juli had a really big, beautiful heart and she loved people," friend Gina Blake told KSL-TV. "I feel like [Jones] is a con man who conned his way into Juli’s life."

On Wednesday, a judge remanded Matthew Jones, 35, into the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service for transportation to Utah to face previously-filed charges of mail fraud and "operating as an airman without an airman's certificate." 

Jones participated in the hearing over Zoom from his UT Medical Center hospital bed, where a spokesperson listed his condition as stable.

Multiple people at the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport warned Jones against flying on the day of the crash, a preliminary NTSB analysis showed. 

When one cautioned him of the dangers of flying in the Smoky Mountains in poor weather conditions, the report said Jones replied, "those are hills."

Jones told a LifeStar pilot he planned to fly along I-40 past Asheville, North Carolina to Raleigh to visit relatives. The report said the pilot replied, "there was no way he would make it there."

The Lifestar pilot told Jones the mountains were 6,000 feet in elevation and there were powerlines above the I-40 gorge, the report said. 

Around 12 minutes after taking off shortly before 2:15 p.m., the helicopter crashed off Apple Tree Lane near Hooper Highway. 

RELATED: 'Yelling for help': Sheriff's Office report offers new details about helicopter crash near Cocke-Sevier county line

RELATED: Records: Passenger killed, pilot injured in helicopter crash near Sevier-Cocke county line

Cocke County officers were the first to speak to Jones at the scene. They could hear him calling for help. A Cocke County sergeant cut Wagner from her seatbelt; she was unresponsive.

The helicopter had been leased from Touchstone Helicopters in California by an Utah-based LLC identified as Lifted. It was Touchstone's understanding the aircraft ultimately would be transported to Utah.

Blake said Wagner and Jones planned to start a helicopter tour business in Utah.

"After she died this new information started coming out about his background," Blake said. 

Wagner's obituary described her as the kind of person "you always wanted to be around, because she made everything brighter, instilled everything with more fun."

She loved the Patriots, beer, hiking, camping and "irreverent comedies." Survivors include a 7-year-old son, the most precious person in the world to her, the obituary states.

"It was really beautiful to see her with her son," Blake said. 


Federal records show that a grand jury in Utah indicted Jones, of Spanish Fork, Utah, in October.

He represented himself as the owner and operator of Noctem Aviation in Utah and said he was a certified flight instructor in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Starting in about May 2019, according to court records, and continuing through Nov. 21, 2019, he was involved in a "scheme and artifice" to defraud someone identified as "T.M." who wanted to get flight lessons for a son.

"It was the object of the scheme and artifice to defraud for Jones to obtain money from T.M. through false statements, misrepresentations, deception and omissions of material facts, and false pretenses, in that Jones falsely represented himself to be a (certified flight instructor) and certified pilot in helicopters and fix-wing aircraft authorized to provide training and certification through the FAA," the indictment states.

Credit: Utah County, Utah Sheriff's Office
Matthew Jones in a 2017 booking photo provided by the Utah Co., UT Sheriff's Office.

Jones used text messages and Instagram to claim he was a certified flight instructor, records state. They also say he embezzled money from T.M. through a joint bank account at Deseret First Credit Union set up to cover expenses for the flight instruction.

Instead of spending the money for flight lessons, he used it to personal expenses like rent, ATM withdrawals, cell phone bills and personal purchases, authorities allege.

The government alleges Jones "stole" nearly $10,000 in the "scheme."

Jones had been allowed to be free pending prosecution in Utah -- but under certain conditions. He was ordered not to leave Utah without permission from a pretrial officer. He was also ordered not to use drugs.

Another order, records show: "Defendant shall not be employed as flight instructor, or fly any aircraft. Defendant shall not be self-employed."

Within weeks, Jones was violating the order, records show.

On Dec. 5 -- 24 days before the helicopter crash -- authorities say he used marijuana.

Jones and his attorney were ordered to appear Dec. 22 in U.S. District Court in Utah before Magistrate Judge Dustin B. Pead.

Jones admitted to using marijuana, according to records.

Pead ordered stepped-up testing for Jones and testing to check for THC. He also was ordered to undergo a substance abuse evaluation and get treatment as recommended.

Jones still wanted to fly, however. The government objected, records show.

The magistrate told Jones he still was not allowed to fly, according to federal records.

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