Virginia Beach Man Pleads Guilty to Using Laser to Endanger Aircraft
NORFOLK, Va. – Christopher Bryan Willingham, 28, of Virginia Beach, Va., pled guilty to using a green laser to recklessly endanger pilots flying a Virginia Beach helicopter while it was attempting to assist law enforcement locate a fleeing suspect.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 10 reported laser incidents in Virginia Beach during 2011 and 98 in Virginia. Today marks the first felony conviction in a laser-pointing case within the Eastern District of Virginia.
Neil H. MacBride, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; Dean C. Bryant, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Norfolk Field Office; and James A. Cervera, Chief of Virginia Beach Police, made the announcement after the plea was accepted by United States District Judge Mark S. Davis.
“Pointing a laser at an aircraft is no prank; it’s a serious crime that puts lives in danger,” said U.S. Attorney MacBride. “Our message is simple: Don’t do it. If you do, you’ve been warned that you could face felony federal charges.”
"I hope everyone understands that pointing a laser at an aircraft is not a harmless act; the potential consequences are grave,” said Acting SAC Bryant. “Make no mistake that the FBI will vigorously investigate credible allegations of any such criminal activity.”
“Our Aviation Unit provides a unique service to the citizens of Virginia Beach,” said Chief Cervera. “It serves as a deterrent to crime, assists patrol units in the location of criminals, as well as providing search and rescue and Medi-Vac capabilities. We save lives. Any disruption of the pilot’s ability to fly in a safe manner impedes our function and can clearly have disastrous results. We encourage everyone's voluntary compliance to ensure the safety of our pilots and that of the community.”
Willingham pled guilty to a criminal information today charging him with interfering with a person engaged in authorized operation of an aircraft. He faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on May 18, 2012.
According to the statement of facts filed with Willingham’s plea agreement, near midnight on Nov. 1, 2011, a police dispatcher requested assistance locating a suspect who ran from a vehicle that had been stopped by the Virginia Beach Narcotics Unit. Two pilots promptly took off in a Virginia Beach Police Department helicopter to spot the suspect who ran away. Within five to 10 minutes of their search, a bright green laser beam entered the cockpit area, which refracted through the windows and filled the cockpit with bright green light. This occurred approximately 10 times and caused the pilots to break away from assisting the ground units on multiple occasions because of the danger from the light.
Court records state that the pilots left the scene and located an individual, later identified as Willingham, pointing the laser at the helicopter cockpit. The pilots shined a high-powered spot light in Willingham’s yard in an effort to cause him to stop pointing the laser, which he did.
The pilots returned to the area and continued their search for the fleeing suspect; however, Willingham resumed pointing his laser into the cockpit of the helicopter. At one point, the laser beam hit the pilot in the eye, causing him to see black spots and incapacitating him to the point where he was unable to monitor the instruments in the aircraft. The helicopter was forced to discontinue its search and return to Willingham’s residence, and this time a patrol unit was dispatched to the residence.
This case was investigated by the FBI’s Norfolk Field Office and the Virginia Beach Police Department. Assistant United States Attorney Benjamin L. Hatch is prosecuting the case on behalf of the United States.A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia at http://www.justice.gov/usao/vae. Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia at http://www.vaed.uscourts.gov or on https://pcl.uscourts.gov.