Surge in Sexual Assaults on Airplanes

FBI agents have investigated at least four reports of sexual assaults aboard airplanes en route to Reagan National and Dulles International airports in recent months. In two cases, the attackers were charged with federal crimes, the News4 I-Team has learned.

The agents cannot point to a reason behind the recent surge of cases, but a News4 I-Team review revealed alarming details from the attacks and a series of other similar sex assaults on flights nationwide.

And although federal law enforcement officers admit onboard sex assaults are often complicated to investigate, the News4 I-Team’s review found no federal agency is maintaining data or statistics showing the frequency of sex assaults on airplanes. The major airlines were unwilling to publicly disclose any of their own tabulations on attacks.

In one recent incident, the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office investigated a Dulles-bound passenger for molesting a 15-year-old girl. In a criminal complaint filed by federal prosecutors, the passenger, Carlos Vasquez, ran his hand up the girl’s shorts, touched her buttocks and touched a “private area” as he sat next to her on a flight from Houston. The girl, who didn’t know her attacker, pretended to be asleep during the ordeal, prosecutors said.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Drew Ptasienski, who investigated the case, said victims of similar assaults have also pretended to sleep through the attacks. Ptasienski said, “Victims are so shocked they’re being assaulted, it takes them awhile to process it.”

Vasquez pleaded guilty in October to a federal charge. Court records show he was issued a $3,000 fine and three years of probation.

In a separate incident, FBI agents investigated Saurabh Agarwal, a passenger aboard a flight to Reagan National, for fondling the breast of the woman next to whom he was seated. Prosecutors said Agarwal, who didn’t know the woman, squeezed the victim’s body, including her nipple. The victim pretended to sleep during the attack, prosecutors said. A witness saw some of Agarwal’s behavior and later saw the victim in tears. An air marshal placed Agarwal under arrest before the flight arrived at Reagan National.

Agarwal pleaded guilty and was issued a $4,000 fine and probation in late 2013, according to court records.

Ptasienski said two other recent incidents were not prosecuted, because of a lack of evidence. He said there’s a pattern to the crimes, in many cases happening on red-eye, overnight flights. “The crew isn’t walking around (as much). It’s a crime of opportunity,” Ptasienski said.

Victims, either frightened or shell-shocked by the attacks, sometimes fail to notify flight crews of an assault before the planes arrive at an airport and their attackers depart. Investigations, though still possible, become more complicated after attackers and witnesses have left the scene.

A News4 I-Team review found no federal agency is maintaining an official count of airborne sexual assaults, including the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air travel. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, which maintains hundreds of databases on crime in the United States, doesn’t formally track these types of assaults either.

The News4 I-Team asked major airlines for their own internal data on assaults. None shared any of their data. In a statement, Delta Airlines said it “cannot share details about security measures so we can make sure the integrity of said measures isn't compromised.”

Several other men have been charged with sexual attacks against strangers on airplanes since 2012, including men on flights to New Jersey and California.

Dana Larue, a California-based blogger, told the News4 I-Team she’d suffered a sexual assault aboard a flight to Chicago in recent months. Larue said the attacker fondled her legs and breasts. Larue said she was so stunned by the attack, she failed to notify the flight crew. She said, “I knew there was nowhere to go. And I would’ve had to get by him to get out of my seat. I was just completely terrified and frozen.”

Larue notified authorities after her flight landed. The FBI, which investigates crimes aboard commercial flights, looked into her case, Larue said. But she said they were unable to bring charges against the attacker because other passengers and potential witnesses had already dispersed.

FBI agents and safety groups urge assaulted passengers or witnesses to immediately notify flight crews, if possible. Veda Shook, president of the International Association of Flight Attendants, said airplane crews are prepared to respond to reports of assault. Shook said, “There’s only a handful of flight attendants sometimes as few as one flight attendant working a flight. It’s up to all of the passengers to be mindful of what’s happening around them.”

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