Man says he regrets taunting Va. FFs with drone, avoids prison

James Russell Weeks III was sentenced to probation, fined and ordered to give up the drone


Hayley Fowler
The Charlotte Observer

SALEM, Va. — A 40-year-old man accused of taunting firefighters with his drone at a Virginia fire station in 2019 narrowly avoided prison after federal prosecutors said his criminal history indicated “an inability to follow society’s rules.”

James Russell Weeks III was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay a $100 fine in the Western District of Virginia on Tuesday the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release. The judge also ordered Weeks to forfeit his drone, which is worth an estimated $1,600.

James Russell Weeks III admitted to taunting firefighters at the Salem station. They brought it down by using a water hose.
James Russell Weeks III admitted to taunting firefighters at the Salem station. They brought it down by using a water hose. (Photo/Salem Fire & EMS Department)

Weeks pleaded guilty to felony charges of operating an unregistered aircraft in November. Both his attorney and federal prosecutors had asked the judge for a probationary sentence instead of prison.

“We see it as a fair resolution of the case,” said Randy Cargill, a public defender representing Weeks, adding that he might have tried for a lesser charge if it hadn’t been for a prior felony conviction against Weeks. “But all in all a fair outcome.”

The charges date to July 25, 2019, when Weeks is accused of flying his drone over the fire station in Salem, Virginia.

Weeks told the court in sentencing documents that he bought the drone from Best Buy for $1,600 and liked taking photographs in the area with it.

“He knew, from warnings on the drone packaging, that he was supposed to register the drone online but simply neglected to do so,” Cargill, his lawyer, said in court filings.

A friend of Weeks was visiting on the day of the incident and they decided to take turns flying the drone, according to sentencing documents. When the drone neared the fire department, Weeks said he “foolishly” decided to “have some fun” with the firefighters standing outside.

He later admitted to “taunting” the firefighters by flying the drone low before letting it gain elevation again, sentencing documents state.

“The firefighters attempted to swat down the drone and eventually downed it with a water hose,” Cargill said in court filings. “James states that he never intended to harm anyone with the drone (a 4-propeller device about 2-feet in diameter) and that in fact the drone was equipped with an obstacle avoidance system that prevents collisions (but evidently not water take downs).”

The drone was given to authorities to investigate, and Weeks arrived at the Salem Police Department later that day to collect it. At first he tried to blame his friend, but Cargill said Weeks eventually “told the truth when pressed.”

“He greatly regrets his conduct and emphasizes that he never intended any harm,” Cargill said in court filings.

A grand jury indicted Weeks in March 2021 and he was arraigned at the beginning of April, court documents show. A judge set his bond at $15,000.

In their request for a lesser sentence, prosecutors called his actions “poorly considered” and “foolish” but said “no one was hurt, and the overall risk of harm to the community was relatively small.”

Instead, the government said the “worst thing about Mr. Weeks is his criminal history.”

Weeks has had several previous interactions with the law — the most recent include DUIs in 2007 and 2010 and a speeding offense from 2015 involving him going 99 mph in a 60-mph zone, the government said.

“This 2015 offense, much like the instant offense, speaks of poor judgment,” prosecutors said. “Mr. Weeks seems to have turned away from committing felony crimes, and his criminal history, although extensive, is old. Again, this suggests that a lesser punishment would be appropriate.”

They added that Weeks has a stable home life and a consistent work history, saying he is “better situated than the vast majority of defendants that come before this court.”

“He was living a normal life at the time of the instant offense,” prosecutors said, “and can have a normal future if he so desires.”

 

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©2022 The Charlotte Observer

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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