An Oxnard man who stole a plane from the Oxnard Airport in August and piloted a wild, one-hour flight over Ventura County pleaded no contest on Thursday to a felony theft charge in Superior Court.
Steven Michael Valenti, 30, was convicted in Judge Lawrence Storch's courtroom after changing his plea from not guilty to no contest. He faces up to five years in prison for the theft charge and violating parole in a previous case. His sentencing was set for Dec. 9.
Valenti's attorney told the judge that his client wished to take sole responsibility for stealing the aircraft, prompting prosecutors to drop a felony charge of aiding and abetting in the theft against co-defendant Barton Dean Harvey, 31.
The defendants were arrested Aug. 27 in the Santa Clara River bottom, where the missing plane made a safe landing.
Authorities said Harvey and Valenti hopped in the twin-engine Cessna 340 that day about 4 p.m. without the control tower's permission. Valenti then guided the aircraft over Camarillo Airport, narrowly missing a helicopter and a building, before flying wild maneuvers over Fillmore and Santa Paula.
A sheriff's helicopter tailed the plane, and deputies arrested Valenti and Harvey shortly after the stolen aircraft touched down in the riverbed, authorities said.
Prosecutor Roger Inman said the charges were dropped against Harvey because there was no proof Harvey knew Valenti did not have permission to fly the plane.
"We just knew that they were both in the plane, the plane was stolen and it was flown," Inman said outside court.
In court, Valenti's attorney, Blinn R. Maxwell, told the judge that his client had misled Harvey about the ownership of the plane.
"He told Mr. Harvey it was his father's plane," Maxwell said. Harvey declined comment as he left the courtroom.
Inman said Harvey did not know how to fly a plane and may have been too drunk to realize a crime was being committed. After his arrest, Harvey's blood-alcohol level was tested at .29, or nearly four times the legal limit for drunk driving in California.
"If this was a situation where they were both sober, it would be some question whether this story is credible," Inman said.
The case against Valenti was stronger, he said. Valenti is an experienced pilot and had a misdemeanor conviction for stealing a plane about a decade ago, Inman said. Valenti also served about a year in state prison for grand theft auto before being released in 1989.
He was still on parole when he stole the plane in August and faces an additional year in prison at sentencing, Judge Storch said.
The aircraft belonged to an attorney from a Bakersfield law firm. The pilot was inside the airport paying for fuel when he heard the tower trying to make radio contact with his plane.
"Stealing a plane is a serious offense," Inman said. "It's fortunate for everybody that the plane landed safely."