A man from Parsippany, New Jersey, was accused on Tuesday of shining a laser pen into the cockpits of a small passenger jet and a helicopter over the last week, then lying about his actions when he was confronted by federal agents at his home.
With at least seven such incidents reported by pilots in various parts of the country since Christmas, federal prosecutors said they were using the arrest of the man, David Banach, 38, a fiber optics technician and father of three, to make a point. Aviation experts said that concentrated beams of light could disorient or blind pilots, and prosecutors said that no threat to aviation, however accidental, would be tolerated in today's era of terrorism.
"We have to send a clear message to the public that there is no harmless mischief when it comes to airplanes," US Attorney Christopher Christie said in a written statement. "Banach's actions as alleged in the criminal complaint put lives at risk. That is illegal and unacceptable."
Banach was charged with interference of the operator of a mass transit vehicle, a felony under the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, carrying a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a US$250,000 fine. A second charge of giving false testimony could bring an additional five years, and a US$250,000 fine, if he is convicted.
At a brief hearing on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Newark, Banach, dressed in tan jeans, with his blond hair combed back, remained silent. Magistrate Judge Mark Falk released him on a US$100,000 bond, and requested that his passport be turned over to federal authorities.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has ruled out terrorism as a possible motive, and said that Banach is not connected to the other laser incidents around the country.
His lawyer, Gina Mendola Longarzo, said her client was essentially a "sacrificial lamb." She said he would plead not guilty, and that on the evening of Dec. 29, he never intended to point the laser at the plane or hurt the pilots or six passengers inside.
"He ordered it online," she said, after the hearing. "He uses it at work and as a gadget to look at the stars."
The authorities declined to address whether they believe Banach had acted intentionally. They instead emphasized the potential danger of a laser attack.
The complaint filed in the case said that when the green laser hit the cockpit of the twin-engine Cessna Citation jet on the evening of Dec. 29, it caused a temporary loss of vision for both pilots. Once they recovered, one of them notified air traffic control, and the FBI was called.
Two days later one of the Cessna pilots joined two FBI agents and other law enforcement officials in a police helicopter. Using a map of the flight path, the helicopter hovered near the site of the laser appearance, when another laser suddenly crossed near the cockpit. A crew member shined a spotlight near the place from which the laser seemed to emanate, and a few hours later, federal agents appeared near Banach's home.
According to the complaint, Banach saw the commotion and asked what the authorities were investigating. When told about the laser incident, he said that it "was his daughter" who had pointed the laser at the police helicopter.
He denied any role in the Dec. 29 incident. After a lengthy interrogation that included a polygraph test, however, he admitted that "he had lied to law enforcement," the complaint states, and that he had shined the laser on the helicopter and on the Cessna. Both were flying at about 1,000m.