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Outback Wrangler crash: Appeal over pilot’s fine for destroying Chris Wilson’s phone after fatal crash

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Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
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Outback Wrangler Matt Wright and pilot Michael Burbidge were charged in relation to the investigation into the fatal Northern Territory chopper crash that killed Chris Wilson in February 2022.
Outback Wrangler Matt Wright and pilot Michael Burbidge were charged in relation to the investigation into the fatal Northern Territory chopper crash that killed Chris Wilson in February 2022. Credit: Unknown/Facebook

The Northern Territory’s Director of Public Prosecutions has launched a rare appeal over the “manifestly inadequate” sentence given to pilot Michael Burbidge for destroying evidence after the fatal chopper crash that killed Netflix star Chris Wilson, as one of his co-accused prepares to learn his fate.

The Nightly can reveal the Territory’s senior crown prosecutor Steve Ledek filed the Notice of Appeal with the Supreme Court on April 5.

Mr Ledek also notified Burbidge’s lawyers of his intention to appeal the non-custodial sentence Judge Tanya Fong Lim handed Burbidge last month.

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“The DPP is appealing the local court sentence imposed on 8 March 2024 on the ground that the sentence was manifestly inadequate,” a spokesperson told The Nightly.

“The DPP … is preparing its written submissions in accordance with the court’s directions and requirements.

“Counsel for Mr Burbidge will then file their submissions in response, and the court will set a date for the appeal to be heard before a single judge of the Supreme Court.”

Burbidge’s barrister Matthew Johnston SC, from Forbes Chambers in Sydney, declined to comment on the DPP’s decision to appeal the sentence.

Wilson was killed when the helicopter he was slinging beneath during a crocodile egg-collecting mission crashed in a remote part of West Arnhem Land in February 2022.

Later that year, Burbidge — the first person to arrive on the scene — was charged with four offences relating to his alleged actions after the crash.

In December, the 46-year-old pleaded guilty in the Darwin Local Court to destroying evidence — Wilson’s mobile phone — after his death. The other charges were dropped.

Pilot Michael Burbidge arrives at court
Michael Burbidge was convicted and fined for destroying Chris Wilson’s phone. Credit: AAP

During sentencing last month it was revealed that on the afternoon of the crash, Burbidge threw Wilson’s phone — which has never been recovered — from his helicopter as he flew back to Darwin.

The maximum penalty for destroying evidence is three years in jail.

But Burbidge — a highly experienced, respected and trusted pilot — escaped a custodial sentence when Judge Fong Lim convicted and fined him $15,000.

The DPP’s appeal of that sentence will now be listed on a date to be set.

The guidelines on Crown appeals in the NT state that the director may appeal against the inadequacy of a sentence that has been imposed if it is considered to be appellable or it is a matter likely to attract significant public interest.

When calculating sentences, judges usually take into account the nature and seriousness of the crime, submissions from the prosecutor and defence, medical and psychological reports, victim impact reports, character references, an offender’s prior criminal history, his personal circumstances and decisions from previous cases, among other things.

In this case, Judge Fong Lim would have also considered Burbidge’s purported motivation for committing the offence.

Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson and his wife Danielle
Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson and his wife Danielle. Credit: Supplied

Burbidge claimed to have destroyed the phone to protect Wilson’s widow from its contents but refused to provide specific details about what if any, deleterious information the phone might have held.

During sentencing submissions, Mr Johnston submitted that the seriousness of Burbidge’s offence was “at the lower end of the range” but Mr Ledek argued it was “mid to other” because the defendant knew the phone contained crucial evidence in a judicial proceeding and an air crash investigation.

In handing down her sentence, Judge Fong Lim said that in her view, the offending was “mid-range” but “serious offending”.

“It is not trivial and it does go to the heart of the justice system and must be discouraged,” she said.

“In balancing all the relevant considerations, it is my view that Mr Burbridge’s offending warrants a conviction, but does not warrant a term of imprisonment,” she said.

“Given all of the above, and given all of the support that you have had … it’s my view, the most appropriate sentence here is that a conviction will be entered against your name, and you’ll be fined, a significant fine, of $15,000.”

The DPP’s appeal of that sentence comes as Burbidge’s co-accused, former senior police officer Neil Mellon, will be sentenced on Tuesday.

Mellon, who flew to the crash site while off duty, pleaded guilty to destroying evidence in relation to Wilson’s mobile phone.

He is also facing a spate of unrelated charges including disclosure of confidential information, unlawfully accessing data to gain benefit, weapons and wildlife-related offences.

Meanwhile, Outback Wrangler star Matt Wright — whose company Helibrook owned and operated the destroyed helicopter that Wilson was slinging beneath — was charged with seven serious offences related to his alleged actions after the crash including attempting to pervert the course of justice.

That most serious charge has been committed to the Supreme Court and is listed for a criminal callover on May 9, where a trial date or a further hearing could be set.

In February, the NT’s workplace safety watchdog charged the celebrity croc-wrangler and Helibrook with “reckless conduct for operating unsafe aircraft”.

WorkSafe’s charges are set down for a directions hearing in the Darwin Local Court on May 27.

Wilson — who starred in reality television shows Outback Wrangler and Wild Croc Territory — left behind his wife Danielle and their two young sons, Ted and Austin.

His widow is suing Wright, Helibrook and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority over her husband’s death. The civil action will return to the Federal Court on May 7.

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