Airline Bomb Threats Earn 10-Year Term

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A loner who called in more than 300 fake bomb threats to the airlines was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years in prison by a federal judge who said there is no room for leniency when it comes to disruptive threats against the nation's air transit system.

William A. Risley, who had been jobless, collecting welfare and living in a $15-a-night downtown San Diego hotel when arrested last year, had asked U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence Irving for a 2-year term, saying he made the threats to distract himself from his feelings of hopelessness.

Irving flatly rejected Risley's plea for mercy. He said he viewed the threats--called in over a 9-year period from public phones in San Diego, San Francisco, Detroit and Washington--as "extremely serious anti-social conduct" that "caused havoc in nationwide air travel."

"I hope that by the sentence I impose the message will get out that people who threaten to blow up airliners will be punished severely," Irving said.

Airline officials estimate that Risley's pranks cost the industry more than $1 million as frantic pilots hurried back to airports for thorough inspections on the ground.

Risley pleaded guilty in April to six felony charges of endangering the safety of aircraft in flight. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to dismiss an additional count and to drop an investigation into his past.

His plea in April marked his first conviction.

The former graphic artist was arrested in San Diego in March, 1989, after FBI agents linked him to the nasal-sounding and effeminate voice that had made the threats.

According to Assistant U.S. Atty. Larry Burns, who prosecuted the case, Risley repeatedly used pay phones to call the airlines and airports.

Before Irving imposed the sentence, Burns played a composite, three-minute tape of recorded calls. In a high, urgent voice, the caller warned various airlines of bombs.

"You must stop him!" Risley said in one call.

"You must believe me," he said in another. "These people are very, very serious."

The threats caused a "form of paralysis on the airline industry" because airlines had to react instantly to the threats, having to assume that they were legitimate, Burns said.

He urged Irving to impose a 10-year sentence, half the 20-year maximum but the cap agreed to under the April plea bargain.

Risley, a small, wiry man, appeared Tuesday before Irving in a loose blue suit, a white dress shirt, a striped tie hanging well below his open collar and glasses dangling from a cord around his neck.

He told Irving before the sentencing that he disputed a figure of 300 or more calls, but said he did not know the exact number.

Risley said he is an aviation enthusiast who reads trade magazines and knows airline workers, and that the calls were "acts of frustration and hopelessness" to personal situations "that didn't seem to have an answer at the time."

He added later: "All you have to do is pick up the telephone and in a minute be distracted from the hopelessness of your situation. The poverty, the violence, whatever."

Risley must serve 8 1/2 years before he walks free, said his attorney, Stephen Hoffman of San Diego. Risley has already been in custody for 16 months, so he will be eligible for release in 1997, Hoffman said.

Irving also imposed probation of up to five years at the end of the prison sentence.

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