Pilot’s sentence for destroying Netflix star Chris Wilson’s phone after fatal chopper crash under ‘review’

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Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
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Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson.
Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson. Credit: Supplied

The Northern Territory’s Director of Public Prosecutions is considering appealing the sentence delivered to pilot Michael Burbidge for destroying evidence after the chopper crash that killed Netflix star Chris Wilson.

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.

The 34-year-old – 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.

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

In December, Burbidge pleaded guilty in the Darwin Local Court to destroying evidence – Wilson’s mobile phone – after his death.

During his sentencing on March 8, it was revealed that on the afternoon of the crash, Burbidge had thrown Wilson’s phone from his helicopter. The phone has never been recovered and is likely to be at the bottom of the Arafura Sea.

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

But Burbidge last month escaped a custodial sentence when Judge Tanya Fong Lim convicted and fined him $15,000.

The DPP has since told The Nightly it is “reviewing” the sentence.

“On 8 March 2024, the Local Court sentenced Mr Burbidge in relation to an offence of destroying evidence contrary to s102 of the criminal code,” a DPP spokesperson said.

“That sentence is currently being reviewed by the Director.

“In those circumstances, it would be inappropriate for any further comment to be made on the matter.”

The Crown has until the end of this week to launch an appeal.

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 chopper crash that killed Chris Wilson in February 2022. Credit: Unknown/Facebook

The guidelines on Crown appeals in the NT state that the Director may appeal against the inadequacy of a sentence which has been imposed if it is considered to be appealable 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.

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, his lawyer Matthew Johnston submitted that the seriousness of Burbidge’s conduct was “at the lower end of the range”.

Mr Johnston said there was no “significant pre-planning” before destroying the phone and that Burbidge “didn’t have a long time to think about it”.

The lawyer said his client “didn’t know anything specific” that might be on the phone.

“But he was concerned there was a possibility…That’s what he’s effectively saying,” Mr Johnston said.

“But the motivation was not to cover up a serious offence that he committed.

“He was not responsible for the crash. He was not responsible for the injuries to Mr Robinson or the death of Mr Wilson and that is a significant distinguishing factor.”

Crown prosecutor Steve Ledek said the seriousness of the offence was “mid to other” because Burbidge knew the phone could contain evidence in a judicial proceeding.

“He made a choice where he took that decision out of the authorities hands, out of everybody’s hands, and took it upon himself to be the person who decided whether or not that (phone) had any utility and weighed it up against what he thought would be best for some as opposed to others,” he said.

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

Mr Ledek said Burbidge was aware that Wilson used the OzRunways app and its data could have helped investigators determine the cause of the fatal crash.

“All other comparatives are, yes, serious offences in their own way. People doing criminal things that are covered up by others, or either for themselves or other people, but they aren’t attached to the serious case of a person who has passed away or died because of a crash that no one has an explanation for,” he said.

“A genuine explanation that could have been provided by information attached to something as simple as a phone.

“This type of offence is something that cannot be trivialised, cannot be diminished, cannot be set aside even by the most exemplary and upstanding conduct.”

Mr Ledek said an aggravating feature of the offending was that Burbidge had “denied what he’d done for as long as he did”.

“In terms of his cooperation with the police and the authorities and the plea and remorse, this came approximately 18 to 20 months after the event in question, where it was that he finally admitted the truth of what he’d done,” he said.

Pilot Michael Burbidge arrives at court
Michael Burbidge was convicted and fined for destroying the dead pilot's phone. Credit: Neve Brissenden/AAP

In handing down her sentence, Judge Fong Lim said she had taken into account the “extenuating circumstances” of Burbidge’s offence, being that he was the first on scene at a fatal helicopter crash involving two of his close friends.

She 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.

Judge Fong Lim said Burbidge seemed genuinely remorseful, of prior good character, posed no threat to the community and did not need help rehabilitating.

“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.”

Mr Johnston declined to comment on the DPP’s sentence review.

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