RALEIGH, N.C. — A man pretending to be a three-star U.S. Army general wanted to impress a woman when he unexpectedly landed in a chartered helicopter at the headquarters of a North Carolina technology company last year, a federal agent testified Monday.
Details about the strange case of Christian Desgroux emerged at a hearing before a federal magistrate, who ordered that the defendant remain in jail pending his upcoming arraignment. The 57-year-old is charged with pretending to be a military officer, which carries a maximum of three years in prison.
It was around sunset on Nov. 6 when the pilot of the helicopter chartered by Desgroux landed on a soccer field at the sprawling corporate campus of SAS Institute in Cary.
As security officers approached, Desgroux stepped out wearing a “full military battle dress uniform” and displaying three stars that implied a rank of lieutenant general, Homeland Security Special Agent Tony Bell testified.
“He saluted the security officers, and they actually saluted him back,” Bell said.
A suspicious security supervisor confronted Desgroux, who told him he was there to pick up a female employee to take her to Fort Bragg for a classified briefing that had been authorized by President Donald Trump.
But none of it was true: Desgroux later acknowledged to federal agents that he had never served in the U.S. military, Bell said.
The woman, a longtime acquaintance of Desgroux, expected him to arrive in a car for a visit. Instead they went on a 30-minute helicopter ride around Raleigh, Bell said.
“She had no idea that he was flying a helicopter to pick her up,” Bell said. Bell testified that Desgroux wanted to pursue a romantic relationship, but the woman is married.
She and the pilot, who has not been charged, appear to have been swept up in Desgroux’s strange behavior.
“She didn’t know what to make of it,” Bell told the judge. “She just went along with it.”
Bell testified that investigators suspect Desgroux is mentally ill, but didn’t elaborate.
Still, the episode was no laughing matter. After the woman returned, SAS security staff notified local police — and a joint terrorism task force soon joined the case.
The privately held technology company is among the largest based in the state, with 14,000 employees worldwide and more than $3 billion in revenue in 2017. Spokeswoman Shannon Heath said in an email Monday that company officials “do not know his intention or reason for picking up a SAS employee.”
Federal Magistrate Judge Robert T. Numbers noted that while the impersonation charge carries a relatively low maximum sentence for a federal criminal case, the circumstances warrant continued detention for Desgroux.
“The defendant has engaged in substantial dishonesty,” Numbers said, noting that a number of unrelated state criminal charges are also pending against him.
Desgroux faces state charges including misdemeanor assault on his stepdaughter and violating a protective order taken out by an estranged wife, Bell said.
Defense attorney Andrew McCoppin said that before those charges in the past year, the most trouble his client had been in amounted to traffic violations.
“It appears that a number of things have snowballed to where we are today,” McCoppin told the judge. McCoppin said his client intends to plead not guilty when he’s arraigned.
Desgroux, a native of Chile, has lived in the Raleigh area for more than three decades and recently became a U.S. citizen, Bell said. He works out of his home as a car mechanic.
Wearing an orange and white striped jail jumpsuit and orange flip flops, the defendant appeared relaxed during Monday’s appearance and chatted amiably with his attorney.
By the end of the hour-long hearing, the judge himself sounded perplexed by the circumstances, saying: “This case is unlike others that we see here.”