Feds indict 4 men accused of pointing lasers at metro police helicopters

A grand jury recently indicted four men on federal charges of pointing lasers at police helicopters in metro Atlanta.

The Department of Justice on Friday announced that a federal grand jury found probable cause against the suspects July 13. The four men, identified as Daniel Maloney, Fredy Contreras, Timothy Wilson and Theodore Rowe, pleaded not guilty when arraigned before a federal judge Thursday, court records indicate.

Pointing lasers at planes, helicopters, drones and other aircraft is a federal offense and considered a serious safety risk, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Authorities said a beam of light aimed at an aircraft could discombobulate and even temporarily blind the pilot.

“It’s not a game. It’s a federal felony that the FBI and our law enforcement partners take very seriously,” Atlanta-based FBI agent Keri Farley said in Friday’s news release.

The FBI is leading the investigation, but the Atlanta and Gwinnett police departments are among local agencies assisting.

“The fact that these defendants used laser pointers to endanger the lives of members of our Phoenix Air Unit and the safety of people on the ground is very disturbing,” interim Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said in the statement. “The federal charges brought forth against these men sends a message that irresponsible actions and criminal activity will not be tolerated.”

Nationally, the number of laser strikes increased 41% in 2021, according to the FAA. So far, they are up about 5% from last year.

ExploreMan arrested on charges of pointing laser at Atlanta police helicopter

U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia Ryan Buchanan said grand jurors were presented with evidence each of the suspects aimed lasers at helicopters as they helped law enforcement units on the ground.

The allegations against Maloney, a 55-year-old Snellville man, stem from a February 2020 incident. Prosecutors said a Gwinnett County Police Department helicopter was helping officers locate a robbery suspect who had fled into a wooded area just before 10 p.m. Maloney spotted the aircraft and pointed a red laser at it, temporarily blinding the pilot and the tactical flight officer, Buchanan alleged. The flight team had to suspend its search and switched to infrared vision to find the person pointing the laser.

ExploreCops: Pointing laser at Gwinnett police helicopter lands man in jail

According to court records, police went to Maloney’s home, where they found him still pointing the laser at the helicopter.

Contreras, 48, of Lilburn, confessed that he pointed a laser at Gwinnett’s police helicopter “for fun” in November 2020, police said at the time. Officers were looking for a stolen vehicle when Contreras began shining the light from his home, the indictments allege. Police were able to track the light to the residence and arrested him.

Investigators say 61-year-old Wilson interfered with an Atlanta Police Department chopper that was helping officers look for a missing 6-year-old boy in May 2021. The Atlanta man pointed a green laser that struck the helicopter several times, Buchanan said. Pilots had to wear protective eye gear to minimize the effect of the beam of light.

ExploreMan accused of shining laser at police helicopter during search for Atlanta boy

The pilot was eventually able to pinpoint the home where the laser was coming from and officers arrested Wilson, whom they say admitted that he was aiming the laser pointer at the helicopter.

Rowe also is charged with pointing his laser at the Gwinnett police chopper, according to the DOJ release. The incident involving Rowe, 51, of Lawrenceville occurred in July 2021 as police were searching for a suspicious person wandering in the middle of a busy road. Federal authorities said he pointed a green laser that struck the helicopter multiple times. One member of the flight crew turned on infrared vision to find where the beam was coming from, and officers went to Rowe’s home. Police said he admitted to shining the light beam.