By Mary O’KEEFE
Two local men were arrested for shooting a red laser light at a Glendale Police Air Ship on April 27 at 9:20 p.m.
Police responded to a report from the officers in Air 1 that someone had aimed a laser light at their helicopter about three times, each time lasting three to four seconds. It appeared the light was tracking the helicopter’s flight pattern.
The helicopter conducted an investigation of a wide area using their Forward Looking Infrared Camera. They were able to determine the area the light was coming from as the 3200 block of Prospect Avenue. Air officers allegedly reported witnessing someone in the backyard of the location attempting to hide behind and under a boat that was parked in the driveway. The air ship continued to hover and reportedly saw a man enter the home.
About a minute later, they saw another man exit the front door of the residence and stand in the driveway.
Police units responded to the area and spoke to a man who was standing in front of the home. They reportedly informed the man that they were investigating Air 1 being hit by a laser light from the backyard of his home. The man allegedly told the officers that his wife was asleep and his son and a friend were in the home playing video games.
The resident’s son, Dylan Chavez, 18, came out to the front of the home to speak with officers. His friend, Jason Phillips, 20, of Glendale also came out of the home to be questioned. Both were detained while officers conducted an investigation.
Police found a red laser pen light in a cup that contained pencils on the kitchen table. Both Chavez and Phillips were arrested for discharging a laser light at an occupied aircraft while in flight.
Pointing lasers at aircraft is extremely dangerous for pilots and their crew. It can cause retinal damage and temporarily blind a pilot. Helicopters, as well as aircraft of all sizes, are being affected by this crime.
“I have had both eyes burned,” said Lt. Steve Robertson, Glendale police bureau commander for traffic and air support. “I have had to go the hospital.”
Robertson has been a pilot for about 25 years and has been hit several times by people shooting a laser light into the air ship.
“The majority of the time it is a distraction but it can burn the corneas,” he added.
Shining a laser light at a helicopter or airplane does not only affect the pilot but the entire crew, and those on the ground.
“It doesn’t just affect the aircraft but everything under the aircraft,” he added.
Robertson teaches a class at USC on the dangers of laser light versus aircraft. He stressed not only the dangers but also the consequences faced by those who commit the crime.
“We have been very aggressive in the pursuit of [those who commit this crime],” he said. “[Glendale Burbank air support] has the highest arrest [record] in the country according to FBI and FAA.”
GPD works closely with the two law enforcement agencies on arrests.
“The FBI has found that the [suspects] fall into two categories – one is teenage boys and the other [is] men in their 30s,” Robertson added.
The incidents of people pointing lasers at aircrafts have increased in the past years with the city of Glendale seeing a steady increase in occurrences and arrests.
“What we are finding are the lasers are more readily available and cheaper,” said Sgt. Tom Lorenz. He added that younger people who may not be aware of the dangers of pointing a laser light at a helicopter or aircraft are easily able to buy the devices.
The Federal Aviation Administration keeps track of the reports of laser lights being shot at aircrafts.
“In 2011, there were almost 3,600 reports nationwide,” said Ian Gregor, FAA spokesman.
The FAA can impose a civil penalty of $11,000 on individuals who are found to have pointed a laser light at an aircraft.
“Those that we arrest are forwarded to the FAA,” Lorenz said.
Recently President Barack Obama signed a law that made it a federal crime to deliberately shine a laser light into an aircraft, Gregor said.
Adam Gardenhire, 18, of North Hollywood was arrested on April 18 after being charged in a federal indictment that alleges he pointed the beam of a laser at multiple aircraft, announced Steven Martinez, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, and André Birotte Jr, U.S. Attorney in L.A.
“The federal statute used to charge Gardenhire is part of new legislation recently sign into law by President Obama which makes it a federal crime to deliberately point a laser at an aircraft. The indictment marks the second time a violation of the new statute has been charged in the U.S. and the first time one has been charged on the West Coast,” stated the FBI.
Gardenhire faces a statutory maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison if convicted, as well as being subject to the FAA civil penalties.
Glendale Burbank Air Support assisted in the arrest of Gardenhire.
“It is not only [GPD] but it endangers [airlines] like Southwest Airlines or medical transport trying to land,” Robertson said.