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Friday, October 10, 2008

Binding kids' hands on airliner possibly assault, judge says

A judge said Friday enough evidence exists to move forward with charges for a man accused of binding the hands of a teenage girl and attempting to do the same to her sister during a Southwest Airlines flight.

The attorney for 29-year-old Ezra Wallace called the incident on a San Diego-to-Denver flight Aug. 1 distressing but said it was "horseplay," pointing to the lack of screaming from the girls.

Wallace faces two counts of assault.

Wallace is free on $5,000 bail. U.S. Magistrate Judge Kristen Mix on Friday outlined several conditions for his release, including ordering Wallace to refrain from alcohol and submit to breath tests and urinalysis.

In a written statement, Wallace said he had been drinking and "never harmed anybody or had any bad intentions."

Wallace and the two sisters, ages 9 and 16, were seated in the same row on the flight. Officials said Wallace did not know the girls or their brother, 10, who was seated behind them. The siblings were traveling without a parent.

In a preliminary hearing, FBI special agent Joel Nishida said Wallace tried to take pictures of the younger sister seated in the aisle seat but she covered her face. The girl was identified only as F.G.

During the flight, the older sister said Wallace took out some strips of white athletic tape from his backpack and used a figure eight pattern to tie her hands together with the tape.

When she asked him what he was doing, "he gave out a creepy laugh," Nishida testified.

The younger sister managed to free her sister, tearing the tape off using her teeth. Afterward, Wallace allegedly tried to tape the younger sister's hands to those of her older sibling. A flight attendant who saw what was happening then moved the two girls to a different row with their brother.

During cross examination by defense attorney Brian Leedy, Nishida acknowledged that there was no commotion, other passengers did not react, and that the flight attendant who moved the girls only said that he felt what they were doing was not appropriate.

Nishida said the investigation was prompted by an e-mail from the girls' mother three days after the flight, not a report from the airline.

Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Ashley Rogers said flight attendants are trained to spot threatening situations but added that passengers also need to alert them.

"The incident, while distressing, could also be defined as horseplay and the remedy taken on the plane treated it exactly as that," Leedy told the judge, arguing the charges should be dropped.

Nishida said Wallace told him he had half a pint of vodka, including two shots just before boarding the plane.

In a written statement read in court by Nishida, Wallace said he has a playful nature and that he vaguely remembers taping the girl's hands, adding that it was "all in good fun."

Investigators have said the two-month lag between the incident and the filing charges this week was because of "investigative work."

Wallace's next hearing is scheduled for Friday.

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