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Smoker Guilty of Interfering With TWA Flight Crew

Times Staff Writer

A mortician who became enraged when he was prevented from smoking on a cross-country flight to Los Angeles was convicted Tuesday of interfering with a flight crew member, a charge that could carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

A federal court jury found that James Tabacca of Universal City had so intimidated a stewardess that she could not perform her duties. Tabacca’s outburst came after the flight attendant had told him that his seat had been redesignated as a nonsmoking seat.

The jury did not endorse the prosecution’s contention that Tabacca had assaulted the flight attendant, wrenching her arm behind her back and violently shoving her into the plane’s bulkhead when she ordered him to extinguish his cigarette.

“I’m pleased with the verdict. It doesn’t matter to me what they call the incident,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Robin R. Scroggie. “I think it shows that the flight attendants were not telling lies, and that conduct such as Mr. Tabacca’s, regardless of what label you put on it, can’t be tolerated, particularly in the fragile environment of an airliner at 30,000 feet.”

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Plan to Appeal

Tabacca’s lawyers said they will appeal the conviction on several grounds, including arguments that the statute making it illegal to interfere with a flight crew member was intended to apply only when the safety of a flight is jeopardized.

Tabacca, 34, was one of a number of smoking passengers aboard the Dec. 30 Boston-to-Los Angeles flight on which seats were redesignated at the last minute because of an unusually large number of passengers requesting nonsmoking seats.

About 45 minutes into the flight Tabacca and the passenger next to him lit cigarettes. The stewardess asked them to put them out. Tabacca admitted that a “heated” argument broke out when he refused to comply, but he denied that he uttered obscenities, as prosecutors had alleged.

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The argument, Tabacca’s attorneys contended, was just one more incident on a flight that had been out of control almost from the moment the plane took off an hour behind schedule.

“Chaos doesn’t even describe what was going on,” said Marilyn Butler, a deputy federal public defender, relating how one flight attendant grabbed a cigarette out of a passenger’s hand and another walked up the aisle with a fire extinguisher, exclaiming: “Where are the smokers? I’ll put ‘em out.”

“Everybody wanted off that flight, including the stewardesses,” Butler said. She contended that the flight attendant made up the story about Tabacca assaulting her to cover up the fact that she had lost control of the flight.

None of the nearby passengers said they saw Tabacca strike the flight attendant, although prosecutors said the stewardess suffered back and arm injuries that forced her to take 27 days of medical leave.

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Susanna Paldi, the only smoker on the jury, said she was one of several jurors who held out against a conviction when jurors believed that they had to find that Tabacca had actually assaulted the stewardess in order to convict him.

‘A Little Far-Fetched’

“I think the whole thing was a little far-fetched; they made such a big case out of this,” she said.

Paldi said jurors reached a unanimous verdict when they decided that Tabacca had merely intimidated the flight attendant enough to interfere with the performance of her duties through his “language, the obnoxiousness.”

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The juror also had some criticism for the airline, TWA. “I personally believe that I would expect they would be more competent, you know, the stewardesses and the pilot, in handling this situation,” she said.


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