Running late for a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Yechezkel Wells told an employee at the JetBlue counter at the Long Beach Airport that his brother’s funeral was the next day.
When airline officials still wouldn’t let him on the plane, the 22-year-old student at Talmudic University in Miami Beach made a decision his lawyer later described as “unbelievably bad judgment”: He walked to a pay phone and called in a bomb threat.
U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper on Monday called Wells’ hoax “incredibly stupid,” but declined to send him to prison. Instead, she sentenced him to two years’ probation after a tongue-lashing that turned Wells’ ears bright red.
Wells’ mother, Tziporah Wells, flew from Israel for the sentencing hearing. She clutched a Hebrew-language Book of Psalms in her hands as Cooper rebuked Wells, expressing disbelief at his actions.
At one point, Tziporah Wells put her fingers in her ears as if to block out the proceedings.
“The conduct is really quite astonishing, and could have been dangerous to a lot of people,” Cooper said.
According to court documents, Wells had been in Los Angeles a week -- his lawyer said he was attending a wedding -- before he showed up at Long Beach Airport 10 minutes before his flight to Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 26.
After he was not allowed to board the flight, Wells walked over to a pay phone, dialed 911 and said, “There’s a bomb on a flight. Um. For Long Beach to Fort Lauderdale. Leaving now.”
Authorities immediately suspected the disgruntled passenger. The hoax delayed the flight for 48 minutes.
The defense filed a letter from Wells’ Talmudic law professor describing him as “a very intelligent and caring individual” who had worked with severely handicapped children and is “always making time for others.”
“I think [the judge] made a definite impression on him,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Donald Gaffney said after the hearing. “A judge doesn’t have to let you go home ... and I think this defendant came very close to that.
“As a result of this incident, he’s going to be a felon for the rest of his life. I don’t think people consider the lifelong consequences before they do something like this. These hoax cases consume just as much energy, time and resources as any of the threat cases that turn out to be real.”
Wells will return home to Miami Beach this week and continue studying and working part time as a sales executive and account manager with Stellar Payment Systems in Florida, his attorney said.
Wells must pay a $1,000 fine, wear an electronic monitoring bracelet while confined to his home for six months and perform 200 hours of community service.
“This has been a wake-up call,” said Wells’ lawyer, Donald Etra. “He’s 22 years of age, and he certainly has a lot yet to learn from the world. He’s learned you don’t mess with the airlines and you don’t mess with airline safety.”