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RALEIGH (AP) — A North Carolina man pleaded guilty Tuesday to impersonating a three-star Army general last year when he landed a chartered helicopter at a technology company and claimed to be on a mission authorized by the president.
The point of Christian Desgroux's high-flying deception was to impress a female acquaintance who worked at the company, federal agents say. Still, the strange episode last November was taken seriously enough that anti-terrorism investigators joined the case.
Desgroux, 58, pleaded guilty to one count of pretending to be a military officer, which carries up to three years in prison. His defense attorney, however, said federal guidelines call for no more than six months' incarceration. His sentencing is scheduled for July.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle seemed taken aback as a prosecutor explained how Desgroux landed unexpectedly in the chartered helicopter at the sprawling corporate campus of SAS Institute in Cary.
"It just came out of the sky?" the judge asked, later rephrasing the question as if in disbelief: "An unannounced helicopter arrives at the site?"
Boyle also asked how Desgroux, who worked at home as a car mechanic, afforded the $2,800 cost of the chartered helicopter flight.
"How did he pay for it? Did he put it on a credit card?" the judge asked.
Boyle also found Desgroux competent to proceed with the case on the recommendation of federal prison officials who oversaw a psychological examination. The judge declined a request by defense attorney Andrew McCoppin to release Desgroux, who's been incarcerated about five months. Instead, the judge will wait for a report from probation officials.
Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, the defendant spoke softly as he answered the judge's questions before entering his plea.
McCoppin said in court that his client has mental health problems that previously led to his being committed multiple times. But the attorney said the issues don't rise to the level of undermining the defendant's competency to enter a guilty plea. McCoppin declined to elaborate on his client's mental health when asked after the hearing.
Desgroux, a native of Chile, has lived in the Raleigh area for several decades and became a U.S. citizen in 2016.
It was around sunset last Nov. 6 when the helicopter landed on a soccer field at SAS headquarters, and Desgroux stepped out wearing a military battle uniform implying the rank of Army lieutenant general, according to authorities. Federal agents say Desgroux told a security officer he was there to pick up a female employee and take her to Fort Bragg for a classified briefing authorized by President Donald Trump.
Homeland Security Special Agent Tony Bell testified earlier this year that Desgroux saluted security officers and some saluted him back.
The woman did have a visit planned with Desgroux, but expected him to arrive by car. Instead, they went on a 30-minute helicopter ride around Raleigh. Bell has said that Desgroux wanted a romantic relationship with the woman, but that she was married.
She and the pilot appear to have been swept up in Desgroux's strange behavior and were not charged.