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FBI cracks down on shining lasers at aircraft

Growing numbers of dangerous laser beam strikes on aircraft in the Los Angeles area and the rest of the nation prompted federal authorities Tuesday to launch a reward and education campaign to combat the problem.

For the next 60 days, a dozen FBI field offices across the country, including one in Los Angeles, will offer $10,000 rewards for information that leads to the arrest of any person who aims a laser at an airplane or helicopter.

Officials say that lasers shined in the eyes of pilots can cause headaches, temporary blindness and injury in some cases. The strikes can be particularly dangerous during landings and takeoffs.

"These threats are real," said Lt. Steve Robertson, a helicopter pilot for the Glendale Police Department whose eyes were burned in a laser strike and required medical treatment.

The FBI will also be working with state and local law enforcement to educate teenagers about the dangers of the activity, which is known as "lasing." Law enforcement agencies have found that people in that age group are often associated with laser strikes.

"Southern California ranks among the areas of the nation with the highest number of incidents due to its clear skies and tremendous volume of air traffic," said Bill Lewis, assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office.

In one of the latest local cases, Adam Gardenhire, 19, of North Hollywood received a 30-month prison sentence in March after he was convicted in federal court of aiming a green laser beam at an airplane and a Pasadena police helicopter.

Federal statistics show that in the Los Angeles-Orange County area there were 237 reported incidents last year compared to 196 in 2012.

Many of the strikes were concentrated along the approaches and departure paths for the region's commercial airports, such as Los Angeles International Airport, which recorded 102 incidents in 2011, the highest in the nation at the time.

Last year, 3,960 laser strikes — almost 11 a day — were reported across the country. The number represents a 13-fold increase over 2005, when federal authorities began tracking such incidents.

The reward program was announced at a news conference at LAX, the nation's third-busiest airport.

"LAX has 1,500 flights a day, so you can see the potential for grave danger," said Patrick Gannon, chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police Department. Aiming a laser at an aircraft "is not a prank. It is not funny."

During the last two years, federal authorities opened 152 investigations around the country that resulted in 96 enforcement actions. A conviction for a laser offense can result in a federal prison sentence of up to five years and an $11,000 fine.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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