Local News

Owner Of Helicopter In Franklin County Crash Seeks More Than $93,000 From Sheriff's Office

Posted June 5, 2004

— WRAL has learned that the owner and pilot of a helicopter that crashed in Franklin County last month claims the Franklin County Sheriff's Office owes him more than $93,000.

Ben Barrick was flying the helicopter being leased from his company by the sheriff's office when the vintage aircraft crashed May 14. Barrick injured his back, but another deputy on board, Ted Horton, was killed.

Two weeks later, Barrick, who was made a deputy by Franklin County Sheriff Jerry Jones as part of the agreement regarding use of the helicopter, sent a letter to Jones telling Jones his office owes Barrick's company more than 93,000.

In the letter dated May 28, 2004, Barrick -- president of NETSTAR Air Rescue -- claims the sheriff's office no longer could comply with the terms of their written contract because of the helicopter's demise and owes NETSTAR $93,949.68.

The Franklin County attorney is investigating the contract.

Here is the text of the letter Barrick sent to Jones:

"Sheriff Jones,

"This is to inform you that the Franklin County Sheriff's Office is in default on its contract with NETSTAR Air Rescue dated February 20, 2004, which leased NETSTAR Air Rescue's Hughes 269A Helicopter. Specifically the payments of $1,575.00 each, which were due on 4/1/2004 and 5/1/2004 have not been received by NETSTAR Air Rescue.

"Furthermore, since the demise of this aircraft occurred on 5/14/2004, it will not be possible for the Franklin County Sheriff's Office to comply with the contract provisions to return the aircraft in the same condition it was received, and therefore the amount of $93,949.68 is now due and payable to NETSTAR Air Rescue.

"Be advised that the Franklin County Sheriff's Office will be assessed 1.5 percent interest per month beginning June 1, 2004, on any past due payments and 1.5 percent on the entire unpaid balance of this contract beginning July 1, 2004, should full settlement not be received prior to this date.

"Any costs NETSTAR Air Rescue incurs in connection with enforcing this contract, such as collection and/or legal fees, will be charged back to the Franklin County Sheriff's Office. Therefore, Franklin County Sheriff's Office should advise NETSTAR Air Rescue in writing prior to June 15, 2004, as to its plans to settle this account.

"NETSTAR Air Rescue will cooperate fully to bring this matter to a speedy completion.

"Sincerely,

"Ben T. Barrick -- President NETSTAR Air Rescue"

The crash happened just a month after Franklin County got the helicopter under an agreement reached by the sheriff's office and NETSTAR.

Under terms of the agreement, NETSTAR -- which is registered as a non-profit organization in Tennessee -- agreed to fully absorb the cost of operations through federal Homeland Security money. The only cost to the sheriff's office, according to an April 14, 2004, article in the Franklin Times, was a $30,000 deputy's salary paid to Barrick.

The helicopter was based at the Franklin County Airport. It reportedly was available to Franklin and 11 surrounding counties at no charge.

Barrick was hired as a full-time deputy who could operate the helicopter.

Soon after the crash, federal agents launched an investigation to find a cause. Investigators found that Barrick did not have a license. He did not need one if he was flying on official duty for the Franklin County Sheriff's Office, which is what Barrick said he was doing.

Investigators believe a tail rotor problem led to the crash. An investigation also revealed that the county was liable, and county commissioners agreed to file worker's compensation claims on behalf of Barrick and Horton.

Even though Jones assured officials that the county would face no financial or liability obiligation, a signed contract stated just the opposite.

County commissioners also said they had concerns about whether the aircraft should have been flying in the first place.

"There are substantial questions with regard to the airworthiness of the aircraft," county attorney Darnell Batton said.

In his report to commissioners, Batton cited criticism from Southeastern Helicopters, where the helicopter was stored. The report quotes Southeastern President Patrick Cronin as saying: "It may be flyable, but it is not airworthy. . . All work was done for display purposes only."

Said County Commissioner Harry Foy: "It's serious stuff. It really is. It just appalled me."

Barrick, who is on medical leave, also could be on the hook because the contract promised the aircraft was in excellent conditon.

"If that's true -- that report -- it's been a lot of cases of bad judgement, bad calls and hopefully, in the future, it will be done different," Foy said.

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