First Responders

California Man Sentenced for Laser Strike on Helicopter — Again

September 13, 2022Carl Prine
green laser

What begins as a pinhole beam on the ground becomes a green blob thousands of feet in the air as the laser light dances across a darkened cockpit. Flash-blinded pilots can’t see their flight instruments or potential hazards outside their windows, and lasers can cause permanent optical injuries. FBI photo.

A California man who used a high-intensity laser to temporarily blind an aircrew flying a law enforcement helicopter has been sentenced for his dangerous crime. Again.

On Monday, Sept. 12, in Los Angeles, US District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered Eric Jayson Suarez, 48, to spend five years behind bars for aiming a laser pointer at “Duke 1,” an Orange County Sheriff’s Department AS350 B2 A-Star patrol helicopter, while it flew over his car in Santa Ana on April 13, 2020, blinding the pilot and tactical officer for several seconds.

A career criminal who has racked up multiple convictions over the past 28 years — including grand theft and narcotics possession — Suarez was also convicted in California state court on Feb. 24, 2015, for discharging a laser light at a different aircraft over Orange County.

And on March 20, 2020, officers responded to reports of a green laser beam shining from Suarez’s backyard in Santa Ana. The ray struck that helicopter eight times, but no one was arrested. Instead, an officer warned Suarez that pointing a laser at aircraft could be “disastrous” because it could cause blinded pilots to crash.

“Duke 1,” an Orange County Sheriff’s Department AS350 B2 A-Star patrol helicopter, is crewed by sheriff’s deputies and members of the Santa Ana Police Department. Santa Ana Police Department photo.

“Duke 1,” an Orange County Sheriff’s Department AS350 B2 A-Star patrol helicopter, is crewed by sheriff’s deputies and members of the Santa Ana Police Department. Santa Ana Police Department photo.

During his laser attack on Duke 1 less than a month later, Suarez shined the green beam at the helicopter’s cockpit at least four times before driving off, according to his Nov. 22, 2021, plea agreement. Law enforcement officers arrested Suarez in a parking lot fewer than 50 feet from where he tossed the laser out of his car window.

What begins as a pinhole beam on the ground becomes a green blob thousands of feet in the air as the laser light dances across a darkened cockpit. Flash-blinded pilots can’t see their flight instruments or potential hazards outside their windows, and lasers can cause permanent optical injuries.

The FBI and Federal Aviation Administration began tracking laser-pointer incidents in 2005, charting a 1,000% hike in strike reports by 2014. In 2013, the agencies tallied 3,960 laser attacks on aircraft — almost 11 per day.

To combat the strikes, Congress in 2012 made lasing an aircraft punishable by up to five years behind bars and a $250,000 civil fine. The FBI also offers up to $10,000 rewards for information leading to the conviction of people who wield pointers against planes and helicopters.

But the crackdown hasn’t halted the crime.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team and Harbor Patrol, along with the Aviation Support Unit, conducts a joint training exercise at Dana Point Harbor in 2016 using aircraft “Duke 1,” left, and “Duke 6,” right. Orange County Sheriff’s Office photo.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team and Harbor Patrol, along with the Aviation Support Unit, conducts a joint training exercise at Dana Point Harbor in 2016 using aircraft “Duke 1,” left, and “Duke 6,” right. Orange County Sheriff’s Office photo.

Despite the plummeting number of flights triggered by the global COVID-19 pandemic, laser strikes against aircraft in the US increased in 2020, with the FAA recording 6,852 incidents, up from 6,136 in 2019.

Between 2016 and 2020, the FAA counted 32,803 laser attacks on aircraft in the US.

Monday’s sentence from the judge was a stiff break from what both Suarez and federal prosecutors sought. Authorities had asked Wilson to consider only 41 months of incarceration, plus mandatory drug abuse treatment while in prison.

“My client, he’s the kind of man we can save,” said attorney Lloyd Freeberg, who specializes in representing people battling addiction. “I tried to explain that to the judge, but he wouldn’t get past all the other attacks on the aircraft, which could’ve turned tragic.”

On Aug. 6, 2018, a Duke 6 aircrew from the Orange County Sheriff’s rescued a couple trapped in the Holy Jim Fire and then returned to dropping buckets of water on the California inferno. Orange County Sheriff’s Department photo.

Freeberg requires his clients to pen a “journey letter,” an essay that forces them to come to terms with how substance abuse brought them to a life of crime. Even after five decades as an attorney, Suarez’s letter shocked him.

“What emerged was this strong sense of abandonment,” Freeberg told Coffee or Die. “He was a 5-year-old boy whose father. His father would burn his genitals with cigarettes. He broke the boy’s jaw.

“So, why’s he firing a laser at military-type aircraft? It’s an attack on a father figure, but it’s an attack that’s very, very serious and we need to address that.”

Suarez will get credit for the time he’s already spent behind bars.

According to San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department records, he’s been incarcerated without bail at the Central Detention Center since Oct. 19, 2021, following violations of his pretrial release agreement.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a statement from the defendant’s attorney.

Read Next: The Strange Cold War Case of US Army Soldier Joel Sanders

Carl Prine
Carl Prine

Carl Prine is a senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He previously worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Military
‘Butter Butter Jam!’: Troops Loved, and Hated, the M249 SAW

For nearly 50 years, the SAW has played a major role in America’s wars. Now it’s being replaced by new weapons.

February 8, 2023Mac Caltrider
Coffee Or Die Photo
Military
Space Force Vows ‘Above and Beyond’ Cleanup of Maui Spill

Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, the commander of the U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific, said a team will t...

February 8, 2023Associated Press
Coffee Or Die Photo
Military
Navy Releases First Photos of Chinese Balloon Recovery

In the newest images released by the Navy on Tuesday, sailors from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group...

February 7, 2023Associated Press
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at the Pentagon in Washington, Nov. 16, 2022. Lawyers for a group of Navy SEALS and other Navy personnel who oppose a COVID-19 vaccination requirement on religious grounds want a federal appeals court to keep alive their legal fight against the Biden administration. Congress voted to end the requirement in December 2022, but vaccine opponents note that commanders can still make decisions on how and whether to deploy unvaccinated troops, under a memo signed last month by Austin. AP photo by Susan Walsh, File.
Military
Vaccine Litigation Lingers After Lifting of Military Mandate

Lawyers for a group of Navy SEALS and other Navy personnel who refuse to be vaccinated for religious...

February 7, 2023Associated Press
Armed Forces Service Medal
Military
Who Earns the Armed Forces Service Medal?

The Department of Defense honors heroism in combat in many ways, but there is also an award — the Ar...

February 7, 2023Noelle Wiehe
Soldiers carry the coffin of Eduard Strauss, a Ukrainian serviceman who died in combat on Jan. 17 in Bakhmut, during a farewell ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. AP photo by Daniel Cole.
Intel
Russian Forces Keep Up Pressue As Ukraine Anniversary Nears

Russian forces are keeping Ukrainian troops tied down with attacks in the eastern Donbas region as M...

February 7, 2023Associated Press
Chinese spy balloon
Military
Blown to Bits! Chinese Spy Balloon Blasted, Plummets Into Sea

The US Air Force downed the Chinese balloon that's been soaring over the US.

February 4, 2023Carl Prine
germany, european union, ukraine gas reserves
Intel
Ukraine Wants To Store Europe’s Strategic Gas Reserves

Ukraine maintains 12 underground gas storage facilities with a total capacity of about 31 billion cu...

February 3, 2023Nolan Peterson
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved