NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Federal authorities on Tuesday used their strongest anti-terror law to charge a Parsippany man with pointing a laser at an airplane, temporarily blinding the pilot and co-pilot. His lawyer said the man simply was using the device to look at stars with his daughter.
The defendant, David Banach, 38, first claimed his daughter aimed a laser at a helicopter, but later admitted to federal agents that he pointed the light beam at two aircraft near Teterboro Airport last week, authorities said.
He was charged Tuesday with interfering with the operator of a mass transportation vehicle and making false statements to the FBI. He faces up to 25 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000 if convicted.
Banach's lawyer, Gina Mendola-Longarzo, said authorities' use of a provision of the USA Patriot Act to charge her client was bogus. She said Banach is ``your average guy, a family man'' who was simply playing around with the hand-held device on his back deck with his young daughter.
``One would think they would want to devote their time and resources to prosecuting real terrorists, not people like my client,'' she said after Banach made his initial appearance before a federal magistrate, who released him on $100,000 bail.
Mendola-Longarzo said Banach was using the beam to look up at the stars, and was shining it at trees and neighbors' houses. He uses the $100 device, which he bought over the Internet, for his job with a local labor union, testing fiber optic cables for holes, she said.
``He wasn't trying to harm any person, any aircraft or anything like that,'' she said.
The FBI took a much dimmer view of his actions.
``What was done was foolhardy and negligent,'' said Joseph Billy, special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark bureau. ``While this particular incident was not terrorism-related, the FBI considers this an extremely serious matter. Not only was the safety of the pilot and passengers placed in jeopardy by Banach's actions; so were countless innocent civilians on the ground in this densely populated area.''
Last Wednesday, the plane, a chartered Cessna Citation, was flying at about 3,000 feet with six people aboard when the pilot and co-pilot saw a green laser beam strike and light up the windshield three times, according to court documents filed Tuesday.
The flash of light temporarily blinded both the pilot and co-pilot, who soon regained their sight and were able to land the plane safely with no injuries reported.
On Friday, a helicopter carrying Port Authority detectives was hit by a beam as they surveyed the area in an attempt to pinpoint the origin of the original beams. Banach has not been charged in that incident. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Gramaccioni would not say why, but an FBI spokesman said it might be because the wording of the Patriot Act statute does not include helicopters as ``mass transportation vehicles.''
It was not immediately clear why a lesser charge was not applied to the helicopter incident. Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, did not immediately return several messages seeking comment.
A few hours after the helicopter was hit by the laser, FBI agents canvassed Banach's neighborhood trying to find the source of the beams. Banach told the agents it was his daughter who shined a laser beam at the Port Authority helicopter, according to court papers.
He showed the agents a black box containing ``a silver, cigar-shaped object'' that Banach said was the laser, according to the documents, but denied having used it when the Cessna was targeted.
During further questioning at the FBI office in Newark, Banach submitted to a lie detector test and told agents that he shined the laser at the helicopter, but denied any involvement in Cessna incident, according to the complaint.
Banach then admitted lying, and said he shined a laser beam at both aircraft, according to the court papers.
Mendola-Longarzo would not discuss his statements to authorities other than to say they were given during several hours of questioning without an attorney present.
The FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces are investigating laser incidents around the country but have not found any links to terrorism or other organized plots to attack aircraft, said FBI spokesman Bill Carter.
``Out of an abundance of caution, they're going to review each incident to determine if there's a nexus to terrorism. Thus far, we have not found any,'' Carter said.
Similar incidents have been reported in Colorado Springs, Colo., Cleveland, Washington, Houston and Medford, Ore.