NEW YORK, NY -- Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that Elehecer Balaguer pled guilty today in Manhattan federal court to aiming the beam of a laser pointer at commercial airliners in the vicinity of LaGuardia Airport on March 9, 2015. Balaguer was arrested on March 16, 2015, and pled guilty today before United States District Judge Jed S. Rakoff to aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Lasers, when pointed at aircraft, have the ability to incapacitate and injure pilots. Thankfully, this case did not end in tragedy, but Elehecer Balaguer’s actions were serious and posed a danger. Others should understand that they will be prosecuted criminally if they engage in this conduct.”
According to allegations made in the Complaint and the Information filed today, and statements made during court proceedings, including today’s guilty plea:
On March 9, 2015, the pilots of three commercial airliners near LaGuardia Airport in Queens were struck in the eyes with a bright green beam, causing the pilots to lose focus temporarily and, in two instances, briefly blinding the pilots. All three airliners were full of passengers and were either in the process of taking off from LaGuardia Airport or landing at LaGuardia Airport. In response, an Air Traffic Controller at LaGuardia Airport temporarily changed the runway directions used for all airplanes arriving at and departing from LaGuardia Airport that evening, so that airplanes would avoid the laser beam.
Each of the pilots struck with the green beam noticed that the beam appeared to originate from the Bronx, New York. Later in the evening on March 9, 2015, officers from the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”) Aviation Unit responded to the pilots’ complaints by flying in a helicopter (the “NYPD Helicopter”) in the vicinity of the location where the airplanes had been struck with a beam. While the NYPD Helicopter was in that area, a green beam was directed into the cockpit of the NYPD Helicopter, causing both of the NYPD pilots also to lose sight temporarily. The NYPD pilots observed that the laser beam appeared to originate from a particular second floor apartment of a building in the Bronx (the “Apartment”).
NYPD officers responded to the Apartment later in the night of March 9, 2015. Balaguer and others were present in the Apartment. The officers recovered a laser pointer (the “Laser Pointer”) from the top of a refrigerator near the window from where the green beam that struck the NYPD Helicopter appeared to have originated. Written on the Laser Pointer is the warning: “DANGER – LASER RADIATION – AVOID DIRECT EYE EXPOSURE.” When questioned the night of March 9, 2015, Balaguer admitted that he owned the Laser Pointer, but denied knowing who pointed the Laser Pointer at passing airplanes.
On March 13, 2015, in the presence of counsel, Balaguer admitted to law enforcement that he shined the beam of the Laser Pointer at an airplane on March 9, 2015. Balaguer further admitted to lying to law enforcement when he was interviewed by NYPD officers on March 9, 2015.
Balaguer, 54, pled guilty to one count of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The maximum potential sentence in this case is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.
Balaguer is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Rakoff on September 9, 2015.
U.S. Attorney Bharara praised the investigative work of the New York FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force – which principally consists of agents from the FBI and detectives from the NYPD, and comprises investigators from numerous federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Mr. Bharara also thanked the NYPD’s Aviation Unit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
This case is being handled by the Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian McGinley is in charge of the prosecution.