The candy-apple red helicopter descended onto a North Carolina soccer field one evening last November, on a top-secret mission approved by President Trump himself. The three-star general was to escort a woman from the grounds of her data analytics firm to a classified briefing at a nearby military base.
Yet Christian Desgroux was not an Army general, but an auto mechanic.
And he was, unsurprisingly, not on a clandestine mission authorized by Trump to fly to Fort Bragg, N.C., authorities said Monday.
Desgroux, 57, was indicted last week and charged with impersonating an officer on duty, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
Department of Homeland Security special agent Tony Bell testified at a detention hearing Monday that Desgroux falsely claimed to be a senior Army officer when he hired a helicopter and pilot from a Charlotte company on Nov. 6, according to a summary provided to The Washington Post by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh.
Donning what appeared to be an Army flight uniform with three black stars, indicating a rank of lieutenant general, Desgroux had the pilot land a Robinson R44 helicopter at a company soccer field at the SAS Institute in Cary, outside Raleigh, after the pilot picked him up near his home in the area.
Desgroux surprised the woman with a helicopter flight when she simply expected him to arrive in a vehicle at the company, the agent told a federal magistrate.
Bell said he believed the false pretense and promise of an important briefing with a lawyer was an attempt by Desgroux to romance the unnamed woman, who knew the man for about 20 years and said she believed he was experiencing maritial problems. It is unclear if she believed his claims of being a general.
Defense attorney Andrew McCoppin said Desgroux intends to plead not guilty when he is arraigned, according to the Associated Press.
“It appears that a number of things have snowballed to where we are today,” McCoppin told the judge.
McCoppin’s office did not return a request for comment.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not identify the helicopter charter company, but when contacted by The Post, Reini Grauer, the owner of Charlotte Helicopters, said the company had flown Desgroux last November.
After landing in the soccer field in the early evening, Desgroux disembarked and went to get the woman, the helicopter pilot, Dan Miller, told The Post. Desgroux also spoke to SAS security officials, who asked him why he was there, Bell said in court.
“He saluted the security officers, and they actually saluted him back,” Bell said, the AP reported.
The woman then boarded the aircraft with Desgroux, with Miller in the pilot’s seat.
The helicopter took off, but Desgroux wasn’t sure where they should go, so they circled Raleigh for about half an hour, Miller said. The pilot added that the woman claimed her headset wasn’t working properly, saying she could not hear him or Desgroux during the flight.
“I’m not convinced [the headset] had problems,” Miller said, describing the woman as “extremely nervous,” although he chalked up her apprehension to preflight jitters.
After about half an hour, the helicopter returned to SAS’s campus and dropped off the woman, which is when SAS security officials called local police, the AP reported. Miller and Desgroux took flight again, and the pilot declined to drop Desgroux off near a Raleigh supermarket in the dark.
The total cost for about three hours total flight time was more than $1,500, Miller said.
It was the second time Desgroux had chartered a helicopter from the company. In 2017, he also wore an Army uniform on a flight to Jacksonville, N.C., where he talked about plans for another flight to land at the Pentagon, Miller said. The pilot told Desgroux he needed written authorization from authorities.
Well, Desgroux said, he could land at “the embassy,” Miller recalled him saying, but he did not clarify which of the 177 diplomatic missions in Washington he meant.
Shannon Heath, an SAS spokeswoman, said in a statement that the incident was “isolated” and was unrelated to official business. She said the company provides data analysis to the Department of Homeland Security but declined to elaborate on the nature of its work.
A judge ordered Desgroux to be confined pending his arraignment. Desgroux had outstanding state charges of domestic violence and fleeing an officer to elude arrest, according to U.S. attorney spokesman Don Connelly.
Grauer said he was unsure imprisonment was an appropriate sentence for someone he believed to be struggling with a mental-health issue.
“If he’s a national security threat, then hell yeah,” Grauer said. “But if he does that to impress girls, I don’t think someone like that belongs in a jail.”