PORT ANGELES — A Port Angeles man who pleaded guilty to aiming a laser pointer at a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter five years ago was sentenced in Tacoma federal district court this week to 90 days of home confinement and one year of probation.
Randall Muck, 36, pleaded guilty Monday to misdemeanor assault of a federal officer in connection with the Sept. 26, 2016, nighttime incident involving a helicopter based at Air Station/Sector Field Office Port Angeles.
“What you did was extremely reckless, even if you didn’t intend to strike the helicopter,” U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin H. Settle told Muck, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In pleading guilty, Muck, a drywall installer who had no criminal history, admitted he pointed a high-powered laser beam at a helicopter.
The MH-65 Dolphin aircraft with a four-person crew was descending from a training flight when its cockpit was hit by a laser that originated near Fourth and Hill streets in Port Angeles near where Muck lived, according to reports of the incident.
Muck had been charged with aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft and making false statements to government agents. Each felony offense is punishable by up to five years in prison.
His maximum sentencing range on the misdemeanor assault was up to six months of incarceration.
“Laser light can cause temporary loss of vision and force an air crew to abort its mission,” U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Emily Langlie said in the press release.
“In this incident, no one suffered permanent damage, but the crew had to return to base and be assessed medically before returning to duty. In the sentencing memo, prosecutors noted that because the helicopter crew was grounded for a time, the region was without a local emergency response helicopter crew.”
Muck was identified as a suspect after coworkers said he bragged about the incident, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Muck is no longer employed by the company, Langlie said.
The federal public defender’s office had sought a $1,000 fine for Muck and 30 days of home confinement with allowances to leave for such purposes as work, medical appointments and transferring his 2-year-old daughter to her mother, according to his attorneys’ sentencing memorandum.
“I want you to know I am sincerely sorry for hitting the Coast Guard helicopter with the [laser],” he wrote in an Aug. 11, 2020, statement to the federal judge.
“I would never have done it intentionally and wouldn’t want anyone hurt.”
He said he felt scared and trapped when interviewed by federal agents and apologized “for the language I used with them.”
According to his attorneys’ memorandum, he told federal agents Oct. 3, 2016, that he had borrowed a green laser from a coworker and played with it on his apartment balcony, shining it at the clouds for a few seconds.
“He said he did not see a helicopter, but that it was possible he had ‘flashed it’ by accident,” his attorneys said.
“He further stated that ‘if I had known I hit the Coast Guard helicopter, I would have said something to the Coast Guard.”
The interview Muck referred to in his statement occurred in 2019, before he was indicted.
He pleaded guilty to avoid the risk of a felony conviction, his attorneys said.
Had the case gone to trial, they said they would have presented evidence from an aviation expert showing that, based on the helicopter’s location data, “Mr. Muck could not have possibly observed the helicopter — it would have been far too small.”
Testing was conducted with a laser identical in power that showed the holder would not have been able to see it striking the helicopter, Muck’s attorneys said.
“Mr. Muck does not believe he told co-workers that he was the individual who had struck the helicopter,” they said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office sought 90 days of confinement and a year of supervision.
The agency’s attorneys said Muck flashed the laser at the helicopter while he was on his second-floor balcony with his girlfriend.
“There was no mistake that he was aiming it at a helicopter,” they said.
His girlfriend said she saw and heard the aircraft before the strike and said Muck reacted to it.
“Because the pilot was wearing night-vision goggles at the time, the flash of light from the laser was particularly acute and particularly dangerous during the descent into landing.”
He told coworkers about the laser strike after news stories appeared in Port Angeles, according to the memo, and a coworker reported the comments to a law enforcement tip line.
When interviewed, he denied knowing the laser hit the helicopter, later telling coworkers he was joking and threatening whoever reported him, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
A statistician determined the likelihood of an accidental strike from the origin of the laser was five to 84 chances in 1 million, the attorneys said.
“His casual flicks of the laser risked the lives of every person on board the helicopter during a critical moment in their flight,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].