- NEWARK, N.J. -- A man charged with temporarily blinding the pilot and co-pilot
of an airplane with a laser beam claims he was simply using the device
to look at stars with his 7-year-old daughter.
- Federal authorities on Tuesday used the Patriot Act to
charge David Banach, 38, with interfering with the operator of a mass transportation
vehicle and making false statements to the FBI. He is the first person
arrested after a recent rash of reports around the nation of lasers being
beamed at airplanes.
- If convicted, Banach could be sentenced to 25 years in
prison and fined $500,000.
- The FBI acknowledged the incident had no connection to
terrorism but called Banach's actions "foolhardy and negligent."
- Banach, of suburban Parsippany, admitted to federal agents
that he pointed the light beam at a jet and a helicopter over his home
near Teterboro Airport last week, authorities said. Initially, he claimed
his daughter aimed the device at the helicopter, they said.
- Banach's lawyer said his statements were given during
several hours of questioning without an attorney present and that he was
being harshly prosecuted because authorities were eager for an arrest.
- "My client is in some ways a sacrificial lamb,"
attorney Gina Mendola-Longarzo said. "A message is being sent."
- The jet, a chartered Cessna Citation, was landing Dec.
29 with six people aboard when a green light beam struck the windshield
three times at about 3,000 feet, according to court documents. The pilot
and co-pilot were temporarily blinded but were able to land the plane safely.
- Two days later, a Port Authority police helicopter trying
to pinpoint the origin of the beam was hit by a laser. A copter crew member
then shined a spotlight on the house where the beam had originated so that
officers on the ground could go there. Soon afterward, FBI agents came
to Banach's house, authorities said.
- Mendola-Longarzo said her client was simply using the
hand-held device to look at stars with his daughter on the family's deck.
She said Banach bought the device on the Internet for $100 for his job
testing fiber-optic cable.
- "He wasn't trying to harm any person, any aircraft
or anything like that," she said.
- Joseph Billy, agent in charge of the FBI's Newark bureau,
said Banach's actions endangered not only the jet's crew and passengers
but also "countless innocent civilians on the ground in this densely
- Banach, who was released on $100,000 bail, is charged
only in connection with the jet. According to the FBI, the Patriot Act
does not describe helicopters as "mass transportation vehicles."
- Similar incidents have been reported in Colorado Springs,
Colo., Cleveland, Washington, Houston and Medford, Ore., raising fears
that the light beams could temporarily blind cockpit crews and lead to
- Last month, the FBI and the Homeland Security Department
sent a memo to law enforcement agencies saying there is evidence that terrorists
have explored using lasers as weapons. But federal officials have said
there is no evidence any the current incidents were part of a terrorist
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