Chilean man admits to operating drone near helicopters fighting South Island blaze

A Chilean tourist has admitted to flying a drone near helicopters that were fighting a 200-hectare Central Otago wildfire. But Jorge Eduardo Riquelme Cruz, 34, also applied to be discharged without conviction and to have his drone returned from police when he appeared in Hamilton District Court on Friday.

The case was transferred to Hamilton from Queenstown District Court as Riquelme Cruz is currently traveling New Zealand and is due to fly home on February 15. The Chilean national was charged after flying a Mavic drone near helicopters dousing the out-of-control blaze on the hillside of Lake Wanaka on January 3.

The fire had ignited in grass and heather on the slopes of Mt Roy not far from the Rippon Vineyard and was fanned by high winds. Eight helicopters battling the blaze were grounded for 15 minutes when the drone was spotted. Riquelme Cruz was found nearby and police seized his drone.

During his appearance before Judge Kim Saunders on Friday, Riquelme Cruz entered a guilty plea to the charge laid under the Civil Aviation Act of operating an unmanned drone in a manner that caused unnecessary danger to firefighting pilots and their helicopters. The charge carries a maximum penalty of four months in prison and a $10,000 fine. Police withdrew the second charge, under the Crimes Act, of having a reckless disregard for the safety of firefighting helicopters that was likely to cause danger to those helicopters and pilots.

Riquelme Cruz's lawyer Melissa James said her client would apply for a discharge without conviction on the charge and sought a hearing for next week, ahead of his scheduled departure from the country. She also made an application to have the drone returned. Given the application for discharge, police prosecutor Sergeant Jim Booth sought to have the case transferred back to Queenstown, where there was the high public interest.

However, Judge Saunders denied the transfer and instead remanded the case for sentencing in Hamilton District Court on February 9. She did not enter a conviction and remanded Riquelme Cruz at large to reappear next week. Outside of court, Riquelme Cruz refused to comment and tried to avoid media cameras by hiding behind a pole.