A former flight attendant who his lawyer claims wanted to be a hero when he set fire to an airplane bathroom and then helped put out the blaze was sentenced Friday to more than six years in prison.
Investigators originally said that Eder Rojas, 23, formerly of Woodbury, Minn., started the fire because he was unhappy about working the Compass Airlines route from Minneapolis to Regina, Saskatchewan. Defense attorney Richard Henderson disputed that claim Friday and said his client has a narcissistic personality disorder.
"I don't think he understands what fully motivated him to do this," Henderson said.
Both explanations are irrational and extreme, U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson said.
"It could have been an unmitigated disaster," Erickson said. "Really, that's all I can say about the offense. The real issue is do we get him the psychiatric help he needs."
Prosecutors said earlier that about five weeks before the Compass flight, Rojas was aboard another flight that was forced to make an emergency landing in Wisconsin because of a bathroom fire. Rojas allegedly helped put out the fire. No charges have been filed in that case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Shasky said Friday that Rojas could have created a fireball on the Compass plane because of the oxygen on board. "It would have been one big boom," the prosecutor said. The pilot had "visions of passengers on fire before that plane got to ground," Shasky said.
The plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Fargo. No injuries were reported among the 72 passengers and four crew members, but Shasky cited letters from people aboard the plane who said they have been traumatized by the incident.
"Several indicated they are absolutely terrified to set foot on a plane now," Shasky said.
The government said Rojas brought a lighter aboard the flight and used it to set fire to paper towels in the rear bathroom. Rojas reportedly asked for extra paper towels before the plane took off from Minneapolis.
A tearful Rojas said Friday he was sorry for what he did and would accept any punishment he received.
"It was selfish of me. I was just thinking of me, myself and I," he said. "I hope the passengers can forgive me for what I did."
Rojas faced a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Erickson sentenced him to 74 months and ordered him to pay back more than $100,000, most of that to Compass Airlines for damage to the bathroom and accommodations for passengers.
Rojas, who was 19 at the time he was arrested, was charged with starting a fire aboard an aircraft and failure to appear. The latter charge, which was dropped Friday, was filed after he walked away from a Fargo halfway house in September 2008 and fled to Mexico. He was arrested on March 26 in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. He pleaded guilty in September.
Erickson said Rojas did not truly accept responsibility for the crime.
"You ran away, you had to be extradited," Erickson said. "I'm not going to reward that behavior today, tomorrow, or ever."