The man accused of slapping a toddler on a Delta Air Lines flight early this year pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday afternoon.
Joe Rickey Hundley agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors in which he could serve up to six months in federal prison, instead of a maximum one-year term he would have faced if he had gone to trial and lost.
Hundley, 61, and his attorney acknowledged that alcohol may have been a factor in his actions on Feb. 8, but both gave more weight to the fact that Hundley’s son was about to die.
“I discussed the issues over grief … in AA meetings I’ve been going to since February,” Hundley said when U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Baverman asked whether he’d been to counseling since the incident.
Hundley was arrested after allegedly striking a 19-month-old baby during a flight from Minneapolis to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, prosecutors said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Suzette Smikle said Hundley was seated on the row with Jessica Bennett, whose 19-month-old son stood in the rear of the plane during much of the flight.
But as the flight descended into Atlanta that evening, the little boy likely became irritated by the change in altitude and began crying, prosecutors said.
Smikle said Hundley used a racial slur when he addressed Bennett about the crying child.
“Ms. Bennett said, ‘What did you say?’ ” Smikle told the court. “Mr. Hundley leaned over and fell against the face of Ms. Bennett.”
Bennett told authorities after the flight that Hundley told her to “shut that (racial slur) baby up,” then slapped the child in the face with an open hand, leaving a scratch beneath the toddler’s eye, according to a federal affidavit.
“He appeared to be intoxicated at the time,” Smikle said Wednesday in court.
Hundley initially pleaded not guilty, and was due to fight the charge in a trial set to begin Thursday.
But his attorney Marcia Shein said he decided on Tuesday to enter a guilty plea.
“He couldn’t take it anymore,” Shein said after the plea hearing.
She said he was traveling to Atlanta that February evening after having been awake for 24 hours straight to have his adult son, who was lying brain-dead in a metro hospital, taken off life support.
Hundley’s son, Shein said, had intentionally taken an overdose of insulin, and died shortly after that.
“He lost a child,” she said of the elder Hundley. “And to hear a child scream … he lost it. He was up for 24 hours determining whether to unplug his son.”
Shein said her client admits drinking during the flight.
“Certainly, he’d had at least one cocktail and he lost his cool,” she said. “He shouldn’t have, obviously, and that’s what he’s paying the price for.”
An executive for an aviation company in Idaho, Hundley was fired from his job amid the media attention to the allegations. And he hasn’t worked full-time since, he said in court.
The plea agreement requires him to seek drug or alcohol treatment and undergo anger-management counseling.
“I’ve already enrolled in” an anger management program “and am seeking approval of the government,” Hundley told Baverman in court.
“We would ask for probation,” Shein said. “He’s already lost his son and his job.”
Shein said although her client admitted guilt, neither she nor Hundley agreed completely with the allegations.
“The racial slur was not the basis for the injury to the child,” she told Baverman.
Prosecutors said Bennett will probably be in court and testify on Jan. 6 when Hundley returns for a sentencing hearing.