An Oregon man pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges of aiming a laser pointer at two commercial airliners.
Stephen Francis Bukucs 39, a private security guard who lives in Portland, aimed the laser pointer at United and JetBlue flights on Oct. 13, according to an indictment unsealed Monday.
He was indicted and arrested last week. Investigators say he’s the first adult to face criminal prosecution for laser attacks in Oregon.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen F. Peifer told Magistrate Judge Dennis J. Hubel that Bukucs admitted pointing a green laser light at aircraft at least 25 times and said he did it “for excitement, for thrills.” After aiming the laser at the aircraft, Bukucs would go inside and listen for a response on a police radio scanner, authorities said.
“His conduct in this case was extremely dangerous,” Peifer said. “It literally endangered hundreds of people.”
Bukucs’ lawyer, Mark Cogan, said his client is addicted to pain killers due to a workplace injury and has problems with depression, and the judge ordered a mental health evaluation. Bukucs has no criminal record.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation found five firearms in Bukucs’ home, including one that he uses for work. Though the judge released Bukucs and allowed him to resume his job, he must relinquish control of his four personal guns to his mother.
Cogan said he does not know why Bukucs had the laser pointer or what he used it for.
Green laser lights, marketed as tools to point out stars at night, are much more powerful than red laser pointers used by lecturers. The green lasers can point out objects up to 25,000 feet away and can distract or temporarily blind pilots, especially at critical times when they are landing or taking off.
Laser incidents have increased from a few hundred instances of laser attacks on planes in 2005 to nearly 3,500 reports in 2012. The Federal Aviation Administration has received more than 15,000 reports of laser events since 2005.
In some instances, laser attacks have led to blinded pilots giving up control of the aircraft to another pilot or aborting landings, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. No aircraft has crashed as a result of a laser incident.
The Portland airport has also seen a rise in laser incidents in recent years, Port of Portland spokesman Steve Johnson said. Through mid-October, pilots reported 127 laser incidents this year. They reported 100 incidents in 2012 and 51 in 2011.
In 2011, the FAA increased the fine for people caught shining lasers into a plane to $11,000. The agency initiated 95 such civil penalties in 2012.
Most laser beams originate away from airport grounds, Johnson said, and it’s hard to catch perpetrators because the beams are hard to track. He declined to speak about last week’s incidents.
Last week in New York, the FBI assigned its Joint Terrorism Task Force to investigate laser attacks on two airplanes approaching LaGuardia Airport.