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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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‘Disturbing uptick’ of sexual assaults on aircraft, officials say


SEATTLE — Reports of sexual assaults on planes are on the rise across the country with law enforcement officials expecting the number of reported cases this year, which sits at 62, to surpass last year’s 90 cases.

In the Western District of Washington, prosecutors have filed separate cases against four men facing some form of charges for sexual assault of either a teen girl or young woman while on flights bound for Seattle.

“An aircraft in a public setting is not where one might expect such brazen and perverted behavior to take place, but it is happening and it needs to stop now,” Toshiko Hasegawa, a Port of Seattle commissioner, said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Officials advised people to report assaults, and bystanders to report unusual behavior, noting a “disturbing uptick” in sexual assaults reported on aircraft.

“It’s scary to talk about your experience, especially with authorities, but your voices are essential to holding perpetrators accountable and making travel safer for everyone,” Hasegawa said.

During the news conference, Richard Collodi, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle field office, noted the FBI and other agencies were still investigating numerous additional cases, but did not say how many.

Crimes usually investigated at the state level, such as sexual assault, become federal crimes on aircraft and on cruise ships as the FBI has jurisdiction, Collodi said.

Most sexual assault crimes occur when people are asleep, he shared.

While the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, signed in 2010, requires reports of criminal activity to be reported to the FBI, similar legislation is missing for incidents that occur on aircraft.

Considering cases of sexual assault and harassment tend to go unreported, the increase is likely due to a rise in reporting what’s already been happening, said Tessa M. Gorman, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington.

There is a more coordinated response to these incidents, and the hope is that these cases are reduced with more awareness and successful prosecution, she said.

Perpetrators take advantage of very close quarters and prey on young people, Gorman noted. Officials have noted trends in recent sexual assault cases of perpetrators positioning themselves too close to someone, and targeting people who are sleeping.

Parents sending their young child alone on a plane should book an aisle seat where they can be seen more easily by crew members and they should talk to their child so they know what to do, Gorman said.

Officials outlined some tips for travelers:

  • Report sexual misconduct such as unwanted touching, indecent exposure and up-skirt photo-taking.
  • Don’t stay in your seat if you’re uncomfortable or in a dangerous situation; leave and report to a flight attendant.
  • Observe your surroundings; be alert and aware.
  • Limit the use of sleep aids, so if you do fall asleep, you have a level of wakefulness to respond to misconduct.
  • Leave the armrest down.
  • Don’t assume nonsexual touching is innocent if it happens repeatedly; tell a flight attendant, request a seat change.
  • Draw attention to suspicious activity.
  • Request to sit with family, especially if you have young children seated alone or away from parents.
  • Designate any child younger than age 14 traveling alone as an unaccompanied minor so crew can give closer care and attention.
  • Educate family, especially children ages 14 to 17, on these tips.

Young people, particularly teens between 16 and 19, face the highest risk of sexual assault, but are also the least likely to speak up out of fear of escalating the behavior or internalizing responsibility for what happened, said Mary Ellen Stone, CEO of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center.

“We want to emphasize that the only person responsible for what happened is the perpetrator,” Stone said. “You shouldn’t be subjected to this or put up with it.”

Airplane assaults are assaults like any other kind and there’s “no right way” to respond, Stone emphasized.

The center has a guide that outlines the importance of believing, affirming and supporting survivors while being mindful to avoid victim-blaming type of questions.

If someone discloses a sexual assault, the guide suggests people follow the lead of the survivor on what they want to do and refer them to resources, or offer to search for them together.

It might be easier for people to turn the other way and tell themselves, “That can’t be what’s going on,” but bystanders have an opportunity to intervene and make sure sexual assault victims and survivors are OK and get the help they need, Stone said.

The center has a 24-hour resource line to assist survivors at 888-998-6423 — no matter if the incident happened yesterday or five years ago, help is always available, Stone said.

In 2018, the FBI investigated 27 cases of sexual assault on aircraft. In 2022, the number of reported sexual assaults more than tripled to 90.

Of the four men who were on flights bound for Seattle who have federal cases filed against them, Jack Roberson is charged with abusive sexual contact for allegedly assaulting a 15-year-old girl in July, court documents show.

James Benecke is charged with two counts of abusive sexual contact for allegedly assaulting a 16-year-old girl in April and allegedly assaulting an 18-year-old woman two months later on a different flight.

Duane Brick is also charged with abusive sexual contact for allegedly assaulting a woman who was asleep during a flight in March. Brick’s trial is scheduled for Sept. 11.

Munir Walji has been charged with sexual abuse of a minor on special aircraft jurisdiction and abusive sexual contact on special aircraft jurisdiction for allegedly assaulting a 15-year-old girl.