Joyrider in the sky: Self-taught teen pilot accused of flying stolen plane on trips around region
By Stephen J. Lee/ Grand Forks Herald
ROSEAU, Minn. – In a case that has some expressing grudging admiration for the moxie of an admitted thief, an 18-year-old man is in jail here, charged with stealing an airplane for regular joy rides around the region, apparently learning to fly mostly by the seat of his pants.
In addition to a state felony charge he faces that threatens up to 10 years in prison, Geoffrey Biteman is the focus of a federal investigation for being an overly precocious, unlicensed pilot who apparently learned to fly on his own.
“It’s kind of an unusual case,” said Michael Grover, assistant county attorney in Roseau. “We don’t see an awful lot of aviation theft.”
Especially by a pilot who learned to fly mostly on his own, according to those investigating the case.
Biteman has been represented by Seamus Duffy, a Thief River Falls attorney. Duffy did not return a call Friday.
Biteman also has been charged in Clearwater and Pennington counties with unrelated theft counts.
The airplane caper came to light Oct. 9 when Roseau Police Chief Ward Anderson got a complaint of some young people “joyriding” in the courtesy vehicle provided to pilots at the airport. He checked it out and learned a pilot there had seen two young men in an airplane. The plane, a 1971 Cessna 150, belongs to Maj. Joshua Rasmussen of Angle Inlet, Minn., on Lake of the Woods. Rasmussen is deployed with the Air Force in Afghanistan and his brother, Army Maj. Adam Rasmussen, retired from the Army and working in Watertown, S.D., is in charge of the plane.
The brothers advertised the plane for sale for $17,000, and in April, Biteman contacted Adam Rasmussen by telephone, posing as a buyer. Biteman told Rasmussen he was in his 30s, had a pilot’s license and was a certified airplane mechanic.
Rasmussen gave him permission to take a test flight and told him where the plane was hangared at the Roseau airport. Biteman later called back to say he had found a different airplane to buy.
But Biteman began flying the plane regularly around northwest Minnesota “to Baudette, to Drayton (N.D.), to Thief River Falls, all summer long,” said Mike Rasmussen, father of Joshua and Adam.
Joe Cornelius, who owns Thief River Aviation at the Thief River Falls airport, told Chief Anderson he had been aware of Biteman flying the Cessna in and out of the airport all summer.
Cornelius told Anderson he “was suspicious of Biteman because he had been flying in all summer and fueling the plane with gas cans full of automotive fuel, rather than purchasing airplane fuel at the hangar,” according to the court complaint.
Cornelius said that a 1971 Cessna runs just fine on automotive gas, which is “a lot cheaper,” than aviation fuel.
Anderson said he learned that Biteman flew the plane across the Red River to work for a St. Thomas, N.D., farmer hauling sugar beets this fall.
“The kid landed on the highway at 10 o’clock at night, on an unlit highway and taxied in to (the farmer’s) yard,” Anderson said. “It’s like ‘Catch Me If You Can.’ ”
Anderson isn’t the only person involved in the case who says Biteman reminds them of the 2002 movie based on the life story of Frank Abagnale who before he was 19 had posed successfully as an airline pilot, physician and a prosecutor.
Farmer Kevin Lee said he hired Biteman about Oct. 1 to haul beets, and he was late one night for his shift that started at 7 p.m.
“All of a sudden I hear this plane,” Lee said. “That’s the night he taxis in.”
Biteman told Lee he was a flight instructor. “He wanted to give me flying lessons,” Lee said, laughing. “This kid had all sorts of stories.”
Biteman rolled one of the farmer’s trucks, hurting his shoulder, and the farmer took him into Altru Hospital in Grand Forks and then drove him home to Thief River Falls, Anderson said.
Biteman left the plane at the farmer’s place. Adam Rasmussen said the plane is in Fargo where it’s being inspected and sold.
Chief Anderson said Biteman, at his arrest Oct. 22 in Thief River Falls, admitted to using the plane without permission. Biteman said he did not have a pilot’s license but was an aviation mechanics student at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls.
Biteman’s mother lives near Roseau. But Biteman had been living in Thief River Falls, where he was arrested Oct. 22, “couch-hopping,” staying with friends, without a permanent address, Anderson said.
He remains in the Roseau County Jail under $5,000 cash bond, awaiting his next court appearance Dec. 2.
Biteman pleaded guilty this fall to stealing a horse trailer this summer from a business in Bagley, said Richard Mollin, Clearwater County attorney.
The owner reported the aluminum trailer he valued at more than $10,000 missing June 26.
On July 15, a State Patrol trooper in Roseau stopped Biteman, who was driving a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer.
The trooper noticed the trailer’s license plate and vehicle identification plate had been removed. The trooper contacted Clearwater County and made a match to the stolen trailer from Bagley and took Biteman into custody.
Biteman admitted taking the trailer from a body shop’s lot in Bagley, noting there was no lighting or security cameras at the lot. Biteman told the trooper he “knew it was wrong,” to take the trailer, according to the court complaint. He said he was going to re-title the trailer as homemade and keep it. He pleaded guilty to the felony theft charge that carries a top penalty of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Biteman is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 18 on the charge, Mollin said.
In a Facebook posting in August, he wrote glowingly of driving down the road with a horse in the trailer he was pulling with a pickup truck.
Mollin said he has heard of other allegations and stories about Biteman in other counties but isn’t certain of details.
He does know, though, that Biteman is not the ordinary offender at 18.
“Our thieves usually are much more pedestrian,” Mollin said.