A Turkish man accused of causing a flight disturbance the prompted fighter jets to escort the plane to its Honolulu destination is scheduled to plead guilty today.
Anil Uskanli’s attorney Richard Sing said his client is expected to plead guilty to a charge of interfering with a flight crew. There’s a plea agreement worked out with prosecutors, Sing said. The agreement has not yet been filed.
A Turkish interpreter will be available at the hearing in federal court in Honolulu.
He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. But depending on sentencing guidelines, he’s looking at “considerably less,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Brady.
During the six-hour American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu in May, Uskanli, 25, had his head swathed in a blanket and passengers said he pounded on walls after someone opened the restroom door he had left unlocked, according to court documents.
He tried to get to the front of the plane, and a flight attendant used a drink cart to block Uskanli. He placed his laptop on the cart, and flight attendants feared it might contain explosives.
That prompted the captain to initiate bomb-threat procedures, and the Hawaii National Guard scrambled two fighter jets to escort the plane to Honolulu. The secretary of Homeland Security was briefed.
Uskanli raised other red flags while still at Los Angeles International Airport, but experts said a lack of communication and an airline’s hesitancy to be caught on video booting a passenger played a role in allowing him to fly. In April, a United Airlines incident in which a passenger was dragged off an overcrowded plane drew widespread attention.
Uskanli had purchased a ticket at an airline counter in the middle of the night with no luggage and had been arrested after opening a door to a restricted airfield. Airport police said he smelled of alcohol but was not intoxicated enough to be charged with public drunkenness, so he was given a summons to appear in court and released.
After the flight landed in Honolulu and Uskanli was arrested, a judge ordered a mental competency evaluation at the request of his defense attorney. He was sent to a federal detention facility in Los Angeles to undergo the evaluation.
When Uskanli returned to Honolulu, Sing tried to have a hearing on his mental competency and detention closed to the public. U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth Mansfield initially granted the request. The Associated Press, Honolulu Star-Advertiser and other media objected, urging the judge not to limit the public’s right to court access without following proper procedures.
At a hearing last month, when lawyers representing the media were prepared to argue against closing the courtroom, Sing withdrew the motion, saying his concerns could be addressed without closing the entire proceeding. That allowed the hearing to move forward in open court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Morgan Early argued that he should be held without bail because he’s a danger to the community and suffers from a “major mental illness.” Mansfield ruled that he was competent for trial and must be held without bail.
Usklani’s student visa had been revoked because he wasn’t attending school, his immigration attorney, Gary Singh said today. Uskanli faces deportation proceedings, but he plans to return to Turkey on his own, Singh said: “He just wants to go home. He’s sick and wants to go home to get help.”