NEW YORK, NY -- Elehecer Balaguer was arrested today by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for aiming the beam of a laser pointer at aircraft in the vicinity of LaGuardia Airport. Balaguer surrendered to the FBI this morning, and appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra C. Freeman in Manhattan federal court earlier today.
“As charged, Elehecer Balaguer’s actions were simple but potentially disastrous: pointing a powerful laser at airplanes carrying hundreds of people and then at a police helicopter,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, “In fact these actions had dire consequences that could have been worse yet, including impairing and damaging the vision of pilots with the possibility of creating real danger to the aircraft. I commend the NYPD Aviation Unit pilots who, at great risk to themselves, located the source of these incidents.”
“The behavior displayed by Mr. Balaguer was more than careless,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Diego Rodriguez. “Pointing a laser at an aircraft during its operation creates a dangerous situation for pilots, passengers, and innocent bystanders on the ground. The FBI will vigorously pursue these criminal acts. For the safety of all who fly, we remind the public to alert law enforcement of any known incidents of laser strikes.”
“Pointing a laser pointer at the operator of an aircraft is an irresponsible act that poses a real and immediate danger,” said Police Commissioner William J. Bratton. “It is important that the public understands that the intentional misuse of this device has the potential to create a devastating outcome and is against the law.”
On March 9, 2015, three pilots of commercial airplanes arriving at or departing from LaGuardia Airport in Queens were stuck in the eyes with a bright green beam, causing the pilots to lose focus temporarily and, in two instances, briefly blinding the pilots, according to the Complaint filed in Manhattan federal court today.
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 who was 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 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 pilots also to lose sight temporarily. The pilots on board the NYPD Helicopter 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, 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, is charged with 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 a judge.
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.