A California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison Monday for aiming a laser pointer at a Fresno police helicopter in 2012.
Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, 26, of Clovis, Calif. and his girlfriend 23-year-old Jennifer Lorraine Coleman were both convicted in December for pointing the high-powered green laser at the cockpit of Fresno’s PD’s Air 1 helicopter during a clear summer night in 2012.
Air 1 was responding to an earlier laser strike report on an emergency children’s hospital helicopter near Fresno Yosemite International Airport, close to Rodriguez’s residence, when Air 1 was also hit. Both pilots reported the laser, which was 13 times more powerful than is permissible for hand-held lasers, significantly impaired their vision while flying.
“We in federal law enforcement understand the dangers posed by laser strikes on aircraft,” U.S. District of California Attorney Benjamin Wagner stated in a Department of Justice press release.“This is not a game. It is dangerous, and it is a felony. Those who aim lasers at aircraft should know that we will seek to convict them, and we will seek to send them to prison. The safety of aircraft and the people in them demands no less.”
United States District Judge Lawrence O’Neill considered Rodriguez’s lengthy criminal background, which included multiple probation violations and gang affiliation, and the high chance of causing a crash in laying down the sentence. According to senior research optometrist for the Air Force Research Laboratory Dr. Leon McLin, Rodriguez’s laser could have caused both direct bodily harm in the form of eyesight damage and indirect harm by causing a crash.
The FBI, Fresno Police, Federal Aviation Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology of the U.S. Department of Commerce investigated the case together along with Wagner, who described Rodriguez as a “walking crime spree.”
Rodriguez’s sentencing comes one month after the FBI announced a new program rewarding witnesses of aircraft “lasing” incidents $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of a suspect.
“Lasing aircraft is not a joke or a casual prank. It is reckless behavior that can have fatal consequences for air crew, passengers and the public on the ground,” FBI Special Agent Monica M. Miller said. “Rodriguez’s sentence clearly demonstrates the seriousness of his actions and that the FBI will work with its law enforcement partners to locate and arrest those who engage in dangerous, improper use of hand-held lasers that puts us all at risk.”
Coleman, who faces a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, will be sentenced in May.