Local News

Warrants issued for Chapel Hill man accused of stealing plane

Posted August 17, 2011
Updated August 19, 2011

— Authorities issued arrest warrants Wednesday for a Chapel Hill man who is accused of stealing a plane and crashing it in Graham Tuesday.

Curtis Rene Mellott, 46, is believed to be in the Chapel Hill or Durham area. He faces felony possession of stolen property charges in Alamance County and felony larceny charges in Orange County. Federal charges are possible if Mellott was flying without a valid pilot's license.

He may be driving a gold-colored BMW SUV, said Alamance County spokesman Randy Jones. On Wednesday afternoon, investigators received a tip that Mellott was staying at the Carolina Duke Inn in Durham, but by the time they arrived at this hotel, they believe he had checked out, Jones said.

Mellott is accused of stealing a single-engine Piper PA-32R-301T from Horace Williams Airport in Chapel Hill and crashing it into a grove of trees about 25 miles away in Graham on Tuesday.

Blood was found in the cockpit and two K-9 units followed tracked the scent out of the woods, but that's where they lost him.

"He's going to have some marks on him because he took a pretty bad fall from the sky," Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson said.

Hillsborough businessman Larry Warren, who owns the plane, said he has never heard of Mellott and doesn't know why anyone would target his plane.

Authorities believe the plane was stolen sometime between 9 p.m. Monday, when Warren left it at the airport, and 6 a.m. Tuesday. Airport employees are only on site from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The search began around 7 a.m. Tuesday when an emergency beacon alerted the Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer service of the U.S. Air Force, to a plane in trouble. The plane was later found off Wildlife Club Road near N.C. Highway 87 around 12:15 p.m.

Johnson said they might have caught Mellott sooner if it hadn't taken five hours to find the downed plane.

"If they would have known the plane was down and we could have gotten (there) at 7, we would have got the individual before he got out of the woods," he said.

The sheriff speculated that the crash happened because the pilot didn't know how to switch gas tanks – one of which was empty – on the aircraft, and it ran out of fuel.

Warren said authorities came to his office Tuesday and asked him if he was OK and if he knew where his plane was. He told them he was fine and that his plane was at the airport. Warren said he was shocked to hear that his plane was stolen and had crashed.

Suspected plane thief eludes authorities Suspected plane thief eludes authorities

He checked the instrument panel at the crash scene and determined that whoever stole the plane flew for nearly two hours before crashing. He wants to know whether the thief was "on a mission" or "joyriding."

He says the plane would have easily started up for a thief, once the person had broken into it.

Estimating his loss at $600,000, Warren said he wants the person responsible to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Randy Young, a public safety spokesman for University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which runs Horace Williams Airport, said this is the first time a plane has ever been stolen there. He said the airport is secure. 

Vehicles can only get in with a security code through a locked gate, but pedestrians have open access to the lots where small, private planes are parked, Young said.

Aviation attorney James Crouse said the security at Horace Williams is the norm for small facilities. He said it surprises him that planes, with their lightweight doors and windows and lack of heavy locks, are not stolen more frequently.

"The aircraft itself is ripe for being broken into," Crouse said. "Aircraft are not made to be secure; they are meant to fly in the air."


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  • jtc Aug 18, 2011

    I remember in 1974 someone stole an Army UH-1 and flew it onto the White House grounds. http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2011/02/17/today-in-d-c-history-stolen-helicopter-lands-on-white-house-lawn/ The Army overreacted and soon we had keys to all of our Army helicopters. I am not advocating this reaction for GA aircraft, but I do feel the security void needs to be addressed by all involved—voluntarily.
    As for the “aircraft are made to fly in the air…” that was a case of unfortunate editing. The entire thought was that aircraft are creatures of the air and therefore must be constructed of lightweight materials, which is inconsistent with most mechanical security device.
    James T. Crouse

  • jtc Aug 18, 2011

    Responding generally to the comments, I have been interested in aviation safety since I first soloed 42 years ago, throughout my 26 year Army Aviator career, and in my 32 years of investigating aircraft crashes and representing those involved in those crashes. I created the Aviation Safety Blog http://aviationsafetyblog.com/ to provide a forum for people to speak on aviation safety issues.
    I firmly believe that security at GA airports is a concern. Apparently the well-respected and important AOPA agrees or it would not have initiated its Airport Support Network program which is designed, in part, to address security shortcomings at GA airports not addressed through current federal regulations.
    Aircraft theft does not happen often for the reasons listed in this blog. But it remains a potential for disaster. Why? Because if someone wants to make the news, an aircraft is a more spectacular way of doing it than a bus. That’s why aircraft were used in 9-11 and not a bus full of explosi

  • Let-it-be-said Aug 18, 2011

    I dont think getting into an airplane is the issue. Anybody who knows how to fly an airplane, knows how to get into one. I believe that any dummy can get into it, but taking off and flying it would be the hard part. Why must people make a big deal out of this non issue. If a terrorist wants to fly a plane, hes gonna do it. Hes not gonna do it without some sort of training. And once trained, he'll klnow how to get into the aircraft. Nobody is going to steal an airplane unless they have some sort of an idea how to operate it, which apparently most people do not.

  • Let-it-be-said Aug 18, 2011

    A sheriff isnt racist if he upholds the immigration laws... Its ILLEGAL to be here undicumented. The sheriff is doing the job that he is sworn to do.

  • tommys5 Aug 18, 2011

    Rumor - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    A rumor or rumour is often viewed as "an unverified account or explanation of events circulating from person to person ...

  • luckys313 Aug 18, 2011

    Drug run? I wonder what they found in the plane I have it on good authority from an insider that they are not telling us everything.

  • Con Amor brings luv and laughter Aug 18, 2011

    Someone very close to me, who had no idea about this story of the stolen plane, told me of his encounter with a plane the very day this plane was found! I'm not sure if it was the stolen plane, or another plane out & about looking for the stolen plane. He said a little white plane flew so close over his head, that he thought it was going to hit the power lines. He took his cell phone out & had the camera ready waiting for it to hit something. Then a car came by & he had to quickly move out of the way and didnt get the picture. He was outside of the Dollar Genral, across the street from the Library/Municipal building in Graham. After I told him about this plane in the news, he is convinced that this was the same plane. I asked why he didnt call the police if he saw a plane acting like that. His words "No quiero ser deportado!" We all know that Alamance Co is the home of the most racist Sheriff in the state. So I cant blame him.

  • neverindoubt Aug 17, 2011

    NCSPAMFISH....I believe you are correct. I went to elementary school with this character and yes, son of grading contractor from Carrboro. Sad. Too much money is not good for people.

  • ncpilot2 Aug 17, 2011

    Dear "anne53ozzy,"

    Based on your logic Chapel Hill should ban all vans from town since that was what was used in the first attack on the World Trade Center.

    Let's look at the facts, no one other than the crazy guy who stole the plane was injured. Now let's compare that with the number of people killed in car wrecks in Orange County. I'm waiting for you to call for the ban on all cars.

    There are always people doing stupid things, but you don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

  • UNCfuturealumi Aug 17, 2011

    ncpilot2...you said it..cannot imagine an attorney making sure an irresponsible statement..come on folks, "lets move on down to the airport and fly away.." look at the lives on the ground that will be subject to this..