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.
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.
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.
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has 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.
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