ATLANTA — Four men appeared before a federal grand jury late last week after they were indicted on federal charges for allegedly flashing lasers at police helicopters, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Northern District of Georgia.
“Pointing lasers at an aircraft is extremely dangerous,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan said. “A laser aimed at an aircraft blinds the pilot and makes it difficult if not impossible for the persons in the cockpit to read their instruments."
All four were indicted by a federal grand jury on July 13, 2022. A trial date for the four men has not yet been announced.
Investigators said there were four separate incidents, and the Gwinnett Police Department provided video of three of the incidents.
The first incident happened on Feb. 13, 2020, according to the attorney's office. Officers with Gwinnett police were using the aircraft to look for a robbery suspect who'd run into the woods, investigators said. While searching, a man from Snellville allegedly pointed a red laser at the helicopter, "temporarily blinding the pilot and the tactical flight officer."
At that point, the officer and pilot stopped looking for the robbery suspect to find the source of the laser. When approached and asked by officers why he flashed the laser at the aircraft, the 55-year-old man reportedly told them he was walking his dog when he saw the helicopter. Investigators reported he wanted to "see what is going on."
Several months later, on Nov. 9, 2020, Gwinnett police arrested a second man from Lilburn who was allegedly shining a laser at their chopper. This time they were searching for a stolen car when a green laser was flashed twice at the aircraft, investigators said.
Officers switched to "protective eye gear" and found the 48-year-old man, who prosecutors said told them he didn't know it was a police helicopter and did it "for fun."
Six months later, early in the evening on May 26, 2021, officers in an Atlanta police chopper were helping in a search for a missing 6-year-old boy. While in the air, investigators said they were "struck multiple times by a green laser."
When they found and asked a 61-year-old man if it was him, officers said he lied and said: "he was alone in the home and was on his back patio grilling during the time of the incident." After police told him they would get footage from the helicopter, he reportedly admitted it was him and was placed under arrest.
“The Atlanta Police Department takes the safety of our officers seriously, whether on the ground or in the air,” said Interim Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum. “The fact that these defendants used laser pointers to endanger the lives of members of our Phoenix Air Unit and the safety of people on the ground, is very disturbing. The federal charges brought forth against these men sends a message that irresponsible actions and criminal activity will not be tolerated.”
The last incident happened on July 1, according to officials. Officers with the Gwinnett Police Department were using the helicopter to help locate a suspicious person "wandering in the middle of a busy road." Officers reported that someone shined a green laser at the chopper. They said a 51-year-old man from Lawrenceville admitted to the crime.
Why pointing a laser at aircraft is dangerous
According to officials, when aimed at an aircraft, a beam of light from a handheld laser can illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding the pilot or pilots of the craft. Officials said in this case, it prevented police from "completing important public safety work,” according to Keri Farley, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Atlanta office.
“It's not a game," Farley said. "It's a federal felony that the FBI and our law enforcement partners take very seriously.”