Back to earth for Ethan

BACK IN THE SUN: Ethan Williams relaxes at Tahunanui’s Back Beach. 
BACK IN THE SUN: Ethan Williams relaxes at Tahunanui’s Back Beach. 

Ethan Williams had all the talent and ambition he needed to fly a plane.

He decided to fake being a pilot instead, and ended up in prison at the tender age of 18.

He is now 20, free again and, armed with hindsight, says he is aiming to fly in a new direction.

Mr Williams was convicted of a string of crimes, including theft, burglary, wilful trespass, fraud, breaching bail, multiple computer crimes, driving while prohibited, and using a document.

It came to a head one evening in June 2011, when he was arrested at a New Plymouth backpacker hostel he had checked himself and four fabricated friends into. He had just finished his pizza dinner, and was dressed in part of a pilot's uniform he had bought off the internet.

The four-wheel-drive BMW he had bought in Wellington - using a cheque from a chequebook stolen from a Nelson flight training school, which he had broken into before embarking on his northern escapade - was parked outside.

Reflecting on past transgressions dating back to his early teens, Mr Williams says it was easy to trick people. He knows, however, that while time heals physical wounds, people's trust is near-impossible to retrieve once they have been deceived.

"Confidence fraud was incredibly easy - I had conned people's confidence in order to get what I wanted.

"If you don't look like a thug and you dress properly, it's not hard. I have little bits of knowledge about a lot of things, so it was easy to pretend I knew what I was talking about," Mr Williams told the Nelson Mail.

The electronic ankle bracelet he must wear until April is for tracking and curfew purposes. He is still not allowed near an airport, except with special permission.

"I can get an exemption if I want to fly anywhere, but a parole officer has to approve it."

His appearance in the Nelson District Court in 2011 and subsequent prison sentence was not so much the beginning of a life of crime but the climax of years of prior offending, but he was too young to register on the public's radar.

He knew the ride couldn't last forever. "The chances of not getting caught were near zero."

The court heard that Mr Williams took on the persona of a pilot because he believed pilots were people of high standing in the community.

He was someone with "delusions of grandeur" and a need for admiration.

The sentencing judge went as far as describing Mr Williams as someone with an "oppositional defiance disorder" and having a "threshold narcissistic personality".

Concern was already being voiced in aviation circles, including that he was smart enough to one day take a light aircraft.

A strong clue lay in notices distributed by the Civil Aviation Authority to the country's airports and airfields, warning operators about Mr Williams' "unhealthy interest in aviation", and that he had been trespassed from the Nelson and Motueka airports.

Mr Williams says he knew he was past the point of no return, and that jail was inevitable, when he broke into the offices of the company previously known as Nelson Pilot Training.

He strongly regrets his deceit against its boss, Dave Marriott.

"He was incredibly good to me and I did nothing but lie to him and deceive him."

Mr Marriott was circumspect in response. He said he doubted there was much scope for redemption, based on a failure so far to see reparation payments from Mr Williams.

"If he was honest and genuine, he would have come up with a payment system."

Mr Williams had enrolled at the flying school in May 2011 with the aim of getting his private pilot's licence. He told management that all his expenses were being met by a sponsor - a prominent local businessman - to the value of $408.25. The cost of his lessons was significantly greater, however.

Mr Williams was in Christchurch Men's Prison for two years and one month, which was close to his full sentence. He said he was not surprised to end up there, but it was not what he expected.

"Initially, it was a bit of a shock. I did understand it was an inevitability but it wasn't what I expected, based on films etc. You don't get to see the sunlight very often, or go outside very much."

It took him a while to realise that his actions had created real victims. Previously, he had "compartmentalised" what he was doing as a means of justifying it.

"It took me a while to realise that even though I hadn't hurt anyone physically, there were a lot of emotional wounds and negative effects on people, that in some ways could be worse. Wounds heal but when people's trust in other people is damaged, it's lifelong."

Mr Williams grew up in Motueka. His parents separated (in recent years, his mother has moved to Perth), and he was expelled from school after a history of truancy and disagreements with teachers.

He does not blame his situation for the way he behaved, however.

"My parents separated when I was about 15, but I don't see it having any bearing on me. Dad was always supportive even though he's been a victim of my offending over the years.

"I've stolen from him, lied to him - I've done a lot of bad things to my parents, but Dad has been really good. No matter what, he's always been there."

He describes himself growing up as "probably difficult, but happy".

"I was never a miserable child. All the [subsequent] psych reports show there is nothing mentally wrong with me - I simply make decisions to do things I know I shouldn't.

"I know the difference between right and wrong. I made decisions to ignore what I knew was wrong, and give it a shot anyway to see what I could get away with - and that's how I ended up in prison."

He admits he still likes to push boundaries, to see what he can get away with, but in ways that "don't really matter".

"I'm still like it, in a sense. I'm not going to sit here and say [that] since being in prison, I've reassessed my entire life and I've no desire for anything other than clean living, but I do want to have a trouble-free, criminal-free life. I don't like prison."

He has revived a childhood Christian faith and is currently studying for a diploma in biblical studies through Laidlaw College, as a precursor to a degree in theology and Christian ministry, but he says he is wavering and still seeking inspiration and opportunity.

"My family always had a strong Christian faith. I did rail against it as I got older, but prison was my rock bottom, and it's only then that we look for something more, for meaning in things.

"There's the potential to drive ourselves crazy if we try too hard and can't find what we're looking for, but for me it was simple going back to what I knew, and what I knew would help."

He still loves the idea of flying, and could still aim for a private pilot's licence, but is realistic enough to know that he will never be able to fly commercially.

He is surviving on a benefit at the moment, while studying and living at home with his father.

He says he hopes for forgiveness from all those he has wronged, but does not expect it.

"I don't like not being trusted, but I understand. It's something I have to deal with."

The Nelson Mail