PORT ANGELES — A Port Angeles man accused of aiming a laser pointer into the flight path of a Coast Guard helicopter more that two years ago has had his July 15 trial continued to Oct. 7 after his attorney said the case is complex and unusual.
At least four cases of aircraft being hit by laser strikes in the Pacific Northwest have gone unsolved between 2015 and 2018, while 15 cases resulted in convictions across the U.S. between 2014 and 2018.
Ronald B. Leighton, a Western Federal District Court judge in Tacoma, issued the continuance ruling Tuesday in favor of Randall Muck.
Leighton granted the unopposed motion filed by Muck’s attorney, Miriam Schwartz, a first assistant federal public defender in the public defender’s office in Tacoma.
Leighton ruled the case “is sufficiently complex that it is unreasonable to expect adequate preparation for pre-trial proceedings or the trial itself within the current trial schedule.”
A federal grand jury indicted Muck on May 16 on charges of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft and its flight path and making false statements to government agents investigating the case.
Muck was 33 when he was indicted.
He is a drywall installer in Port Angeles, where he still lives, Schwartz said last week.
The Eurocopter Dauphin-Dolphin helicopter is based on Ediz Hook, at Coast Guard Air Station-Sector Field Office Port Angeles.
It was targeted by a laser at about 8:15 p.m. Sept. 26, 2016, according a Port Angeles Police Department report.
The beam originated from the bluff near Crown Park in west Port Angeles, about 3 miles from the Hook, according to the report.
Four crew members were on board as the aircraft approached about 4 miles from the airfield, the police report said.
“I observed a green laser illuminate the front section of the helicopter for 1 or 2 seconds,” a crew member said.
Muck “admitted to shining a green laser from his home that correlates with our incident,” according to an Oct. 4, 2016, report authored by a Coast Guard Investigative Service investigator.
The investigator said a woman at Muck’s home at the time of the incident “witnessed the lasing and provided the time within an hour.”
Muck was interviewed again by an FBI agent May 3, 2018.
“The defendant falsely stated that he did not see a Coast Guard helicopter in the sky on or about September 26, 2016, when in fact, as the Defendant then and there well knew and believed, the Defendant had observed a Coast Guard helicopter on or about Sept. 26, 2016,” according to the indictment.
Schwartz argued in her motion that she needed more time to view written materials, audio-recorded interviews and surveillance footage.
“In order to provide effective assistance of counsel to Mr. Muck for these serious and somewhat unusual charges, the defense needs to interview numerous witnesses, possibly conduct forensic testing and conduct legal research,” she said.
The laser-pointing charge “is not a common federal charge,” Schwartz said last week.
“These are not charges we often see.
“I’ve never seen one in Tacoma in 20 years.”
Four laser strikes were reported on Coast Guard aircraft between 2015 and 2018 — three in Port Angeles and one in Bellingham — that resulted in no arrests.
A Coast Guard helicopter crew member based at Ediz Hook reportedly suffered eye damage from a strike in March 2018.
There were 15 laser-pointing cases that resulted in convictions from September 2014 to March 2018 in federal district courts in the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C; Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Carolina, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle.
One was a March 13, 2018, incident at Sea-Tac International Airport.
Michael McIntyre of Burien pleaded guilty in July 2018 to pointing laser beams at planes as they landed at the airport, about 3 miles east of Burien.
McIntyre was sentenced to eight months in prison.
The other 14 cases involved sentences ranging from probation in four cases to prison sentences in eight cases of six to 37 months.
Two guilty pleas have not yet resulted in sentences.
Ten police aircraft, mostly helicopters, were targeted, including eight in the District of Columbia.
Two commercial jetliners were targeted as they approached Portland International Airport.
In Oregon and South Carolina, news helicopters were targeted.
In the South Carolina incident, a laser was aimed in November 2013 at two aircraft as pilots were flying to cover a vehicle accident on an interstate, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina.
“The inherent danger in pointing a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft is that the pilot can be temporarily blinded by the laser light and can become disoriented while trying to continue operating the aircraft,” according to a press release from the South Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina.
“Such an act can interfere with the safe operation of an aircraft and poses significant risk of accident and injury.”
A Schertz, Texas, man was arrested in May for allegedly aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.
He could be sentenced to up to five years and fined up to $250,000.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].