A federal grand jury in Fresno returned three indictments today charging three men and one woman under new federal legislation that makes it a crime to point the beam of a laser at an aircraft, announced U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner and Herbert M. Brown, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Sacramento Field Office.
The federal statute used to charge the defendants is part of legislation signed into law last year by President Obama that makes it a federal crime to knowingly aim the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft. The offense carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The indictments mark the first time such charges have been brought in the Eastern District of California, a judicial district that covers thirty-four counties in the eastern portion of California.
Reports of laser attacks have increased dramatically in recent years as powerful laser devices have become more affordable and widely available to the public. According to the FBI, there were 3,482 aircraft laser strikes reported in the United States in 2012, averaging 10 strikes a day. So far this year, laser strikes have increased up to 11 strikes a day. Laser beams pose a serious safety hazard to flight operations. The focused beams of a laser remain powerful at extended viewing distances and can expose pilots and their crew members and passengers to radiation levels above those considered to be flight safe. Brief exposure to even a relatively low-powered laser beam can cause discomfort and temporary visual impairments such as glare, flash blindness and after images. Prolonged exposure to high-powered laser beams has resulted in permanent eye injury.
“Laser strikes on aircraft are extremely dangerous,” said U.S. Attorney Wagner. “Those who target aircraft with lasers should know that it is a federal crime, and it will be prosecuted.”
Laser Strike of Kern County Sheriff Helicopter
Brett Lee Scott, 25, of Bakersfield, was charged with four counts of aiming a laser pointer at Air-1, a Kern County Sheriff helicopter. Scott was also charged with four counts of attempting to interfere with the safe operation of Air-1, an offense that was enacted in 2001 under the U.S. Patriot Act and carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. According to court records, Scott allegedly used two different laser pointers to strike Air-1 with powerful green and purple laser beams multiple times during four separate incidents over a three-month period. As a result of the laser strikes, the pilots suffered flash blindness that lasted a few minutes, causing disorientation. The pilots were able to pinpoint the origin of the beams and, with the help of patrol deputies, identified Scott as a suspect. Scott is scheduled for arraignment on the indictment on Monday, March 25, before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Fresno. This case is a product of an investigation by the FBI’s Bakersfield Office and Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
Laser Strike of Children’s Hospital and Fresno PD Helicopters
Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, aka Javier Rodrigues, 26, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, 23, both of Clovis, were charged with two counts of aiming a laser pointer at Air George, an emergency transport ambulance of Children’s Hospital Central California, and Air-1, a Fresno Police Department helicopter. They were also charged with conspiring to interfere with the safe operation of the helicopters and two counts of attempting to interfere with their safe operation. According to the indictment, Scott and Coleman deliberately targeted Air George while it was en route to transport a patient to Children’s Hospital. They again targeted Air-1 as it circled their apartment complex, responding to the report of the laser attack on Air George. Rodriguez and Coleman are scheduled for arraignment on March 28. At his initial court appearance, Rodriguez was ordered detained as a flight risk and a danger to the community. He has a further detention hearing on March 26. The case was investigated by the FBI’s Fresno Office, Clovis Police Department, and Fresno Police Department.
Laser Strike of Fresno County Sheriff Helicopter
Charles Conrad Mahaffey, 22, of Clovis, was charged with one count of aiming a laser pointer at Eagle 1, a Fresno County Sheriff helicopter, and one count of attempting to interfere with the safe operation of the helicopter. According to court records, Eagle 1 was assisting ground units on a call when it was struck by a powerful red laser and was forced to call off its enforcement mission. With the help of the Clovis Police Department, the pilot was able to locate the source of the laser and identify Mahaffey as the suspect. He scheduled for arraignment on March 28. The case was investigated by the FBI’s Fresno Office, Clovis Police Department, and Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
The defendants face a maximum prison term of 20 years as to each charge of interfering with the safe operation of an aircraft and a maximum
prison term of five years as to each charge of pointing a laser at an aircraft. Any sentences would be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.
The allegations in the indictments are only accusations, and all persons are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar is prosecuting these cases.