NEW YORK (AP) — The lawyer for a man arrested Monday on a federal charge that he knowingly directed a laser at aircraft says his client came to him last week saying his conscience was bothering him because someone else had been arrested for something he did.
Attorney Manuel A. Sanchez Jr. said outside court that Elehecer Balaguer told him he wanted "to go to court and confess to the crime."
Balaguer, 54, surrendered Monday morning and was released on $50,000 bail later in the day after an initial appearance before a magistrate judge in Manhattan on a charge that carries a potential prison sentence of five years.
On Friday, Balaguer told a Bronx judge in state court that the government had the wrong man when it arrested Frank Egan on charges of assault, weapon possession and directing a laser at an aircraft. Egan also lives in the Bronx apartment where Balaguer resides.
Balaguer was charged alone in federal court after pilots of three passenger planes and a police helicopter told authorities they suffered eye injuries when a green light beam was pointed at them as they flew near LaGuardia Airport on the evening of March 9. Some of the pilots were treated at hospitals.
Federal authorities said pilots on board a New York Police Department helicopter managed to pinpoint a particular Bronx apartment where they believed the laser had originated. They said Balaguer and others were in the apartment when police investigators went there and that Balaguer admitted that he owned the laser pointer but denied knowing who pointed it at passing airplanes. The laser device was found on top of the refrigerator.
Sanchez said his client admits that he was using a laser, but the lawyer added that there was no way Balaguer intended to hurt anybody.
"He's not a terrorist," the lawyer said. "It's a case of stupidity."
Balaguer's bail conditions called for him to continue to receive drug and mental health treatment.
Sanchez said his client suffered from bipolar disorder, among psychological issues that made it questionable as to whether he could form the intent the law requires to be convicted of a crime.
Sanchez said Balaguer purchased the laser in Florida in January for $50.
In a release, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Balaguer's actions "simple but potentially disastrous."
FBI Assistant Director Diego Rodriguez said Balaguer's actions were "more than careless. Pointing a laser at an aircraft during its operation creates a dangerous situation for pilots, passengers and innocent bystanders on the ground."
In a criminal complaint, authorities said Balaguer admitted that he lied when he spoke to police officers March 9. They said he admitted pointing the laser at a plane. Egan was referred to in the court papers only as "Individual-1." The complaint said he was the only person in the apartment who was not asleep when police arrived.