FLORENCE, S.C. – Days after the Florence County Sheriff’s Office unveiled its new helicopter in April, as part of its new aviation division, two Lake City aviators were charged with felonies by the department for operating another helicopter the sheriff’s office was acquiring.
Last week, Florence lawyer Patrick McLaughlin filed a motion to dismiss the felony charges of unlawful entry of aircraft, damaging or removing equipment against Dusan Fridl and Hemming Hemmingsen on April 16 and April 20, respectively.
According to the 12-page motion, filed in a circuit court, the two were arrested for operating a Bell OH58A helicopter that documents show was still owned by the Lake City Police Department prior to a transfer to the FCSO.
The pilots helped LCPD acquire the helicopter through the Department of Defense’s military surplus 1033 program for the Lake City Police Department.
The LCPD helicopter, now known as Raptor 2, is the same model as Raptor 1 that the FCSO acquired through the same federal program and unveiled on April 14.
McLaughlin asserts in his motion that “FCSO did not like the idea of a competing air unit and pressure was applied to LCPD to give up their helicopter. That pressure worked and at some point Fridl and Hemmingsen were informed that LCPD was going to give the helicopter to FCSO.”
Maj. Mike Nunn, general counsel and public information officer for FCSO, had not seen the motion, and said regardless that, “it would be inappropriate to make a public statement on this pending prosecution.”
Timeline to takeoff
Emails, and other documents part of the 90 pages supporting the motion, layout how Fridl and Hemmingsen became interested in acquiring a helicopter from the federal program to create a regional air support unit.
“Several regional agencies expressed interest in their proposal, the Florence County Sheriff’s Office was not interested in participating in such a regional air support unit,” the motion reads. “Despite having expressed no interest in participating in the air unit that Fridl, Hemmingsen and LCPD were putting together, FCSO decided that they wanted their own air unit.”
Work began in 2011, at Fridl’s prompting, when the LCPD applied for the 1033 program.
Mike Reichenbach, a state constable and Florence car dealer, assisted in gathering information from other sheriff’s departments about the helicopters and even asked several if they were willing to transfer their helicopters.
The regional air support unit would be based at the Lake City Airport, where Fridl is the manager, and Hemmingsen, a pilot and flight instructor, could be chief pilot. Both are licensed commercial pilots and have time in rotary aircraft, according to the motion.
The group developed a 96-page standard operating procedure for the air unit by May 2014.
At that time, Fridl revealed that FCSO was now interested in creating an air unit and was requesting three helicopters.
“Talked to (County Administrator K.G.) Rusty (Smith) yesterday, looks like the Sheriff’s office will request 3 TH-67 (helicopters), but have no plan for activation in the near future,” Fridl wrote to Reichenbach, Hemmingsen and Kevin Lynch. “Rusty did tell the sheriff’s office to talk to us, but they declined.”
Reichenbach replied to the May 13 email and resigned so as not to jeopardize his relationship with FCSO.
“Up until last week, I’ve never heard of the FCSO showing an interest in an Air Wing,” Reichenbach wrote. “However, now I have a strong sense that the 1033 program will only want to give the helicopters to one department within Florence County.”
Later that day Fridl submitted a request to DOD for two flyable helicopters and one non-flyable one for parts.
In its requisition request, LCPD Chief Joseph Cooper outlined goals of the department’s air unit.
“Mutual aid agreement(s) will be discussed and (entered) upon by the tri-county areas,” Cooper wrote. “The agency fiscal wherewithal to support this operation will come by means of the multi-jurisdictional agreement between the several law enforcement agencies located within.”
The Lake City group got word of an available helicopter in November and Fridl and Hemmingsen flew it back from Kentucky in December.
Up, up and away
In February 2015 the Lake City group was informed a certificate of registration wasn’t issued for the helicopter yet, due to outstanding compliance issues (per emails with the Federal Aviation Administration). That certificate wasn’t issued until April 23 but at that point the ownership of the helicopter hit turbulence.
On April 2, Lake City Administrator Shawn Bell notified Fridl that FCSO wanted to take possession of the helicopter. It was Fridl’s belief the transfer date would be April 7.
On April 6 Fridl and Hemmingsen took the helicopter up for an hour-long maintenance flight then fueled it up and locked it on the tarmac at Lake City Airport. The next day Fridl dropped off the keys and an aircraft release certificate for the chopper. The certificate transferred the helicopter from LCPD to FCSO, and was signed by FCSO deputy Curt Summerford on April 7.
Days later, Fridl and Hemmingsen were booked on felony charges of unlawful entry of aircraft, damaging or removing equipment.
“On or about the date of 4/6/2015 the defendant [Dusan Fridl/Hemming Hemmingsen] did commit the act of unlawful entry of an aircraft,” the warrants stated. “(They) did enter a Bell OH58A Helicopter that belonged to the Florence County Sheriff’s Office without express or implied permission.”
McLaughlin’s motion finds that not only was the aircraft release certificate dated the day after the maintenance flight by Fridl and Hemmingsen, but that aircraft require physical possession and a completed DD Form 1348-1A—neither of which were fulfilled on April 6. McLaughlin said the form wasn’t even completed until he subpoenaed the FCSO.
“Pursuant to the Department of Defense regulations and procedures, FCSO did not own the helicopter from LCPD until May 13, 2015, over a month after FCSO obtained the warrants claiming Fridl and Hemmingsen unlawfully used “their” helicopter,” the motion reads.
McLaughlin said he hopes this motion to dismiss will end the matter, especially since the charge is affecting Hemmingsen, a Norwegian living in America since 2006, and his ability to renew his permanent resident status.
As for the FCSO aviation division, Florence County Council did not budget additional funds above the $20,000 of the $320,000 the department requested.