Former news helicopter pilot Robert Pettee has been arrested on suspicion of illegally providing two machine guns to a friend who later sold them to undercover federal agents, the U.S. attorney's office said Tuesday.
Officials said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and Los Angeles police officers took Pettee, 51, into custody near his Mount Washington home at 8:15 a.m. Monday.
Pettee, perhaps best known to television viewers for his flamboyant handlebar mustache and his exuberant KNBC accounts of breaking news, was booked on federal charges of unlawful possession and/or transfer of a machine gun. He was released on $25,000 bail.
The onetime Vietnam War pilot is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles for arraignment Dec. 3, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Pettee's lawyer, Charles T. Mathews, said his client was innocent and called the whole affair "a colossal misunderstanding."
He said Pettee's friend, Jeff Miller of Van Nuys, was contacted last summer by undercover ATF agents posing as would-be purchasers. Miller told the agents he had a friend who was interested in selling a couple of machine guns, according to a federal affidavit filed in connection with the case.
On Aug. 20, Mrozek said, Miller sold the agents a Heckler & Koch SP-89 and an MFR .223--fully automatic weapons classified as machine guns.
After two more months of investigation, the agents arrested Miller. "They asked him where he got the guns," Mrozek said. "He said, 'I got them from Bob Pettee.' "
Miller, indicted on the same counts as Pettee, is scheduled for arraignment next week.
Pettee started working as a freelance news helicopter pilot in 1978. Covering everything from the destructive Baldwin Hills fire in 1985 to the Northridge earthquake in 1994, he became well known to Southern California television audiences. For more than a decade, he worked for KNBC, but the television station said he "has not been associated" with it since Sept. 28.