NEW YORK (AP) — A man who aimed a laser pointer at planes near LaGuardia Airport pleaded guilty to a new federal charge on Tuesday.
Elehecer Balaguer entered the plea in Manhattan federal court to a count of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft.
Though the charge carries a potential penalty of up to five years in prison, Balaguer is likely to receive leniency at his September sentencing after describing his crime and his history of mental illness. A plea agreement called for a sentence of between 2 and 2 1/2 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, noting Balaguer's psychiatric history and apparent lack of wrongful intent, told defense lawyers and prosecutors, "This is not going to be a routine sentence."
Balaguer, 54, said he went to Florida in December after his brother died and decided to carry the $50 laser he bought there on his plane ride back to New York. He said he was at an apartment with his family on March 9 when he "thought about flashing it out the windows at planes."
"The next thing I knew I was in big, big trouble," he said.
Pilots of three passenger planes and a police helicopter told authorities they suffered eye injuries when a light beam was pointed at them as they flew near LaGuardia that day. Federal authorities said pilots on the police helicopter pinpointed the Bronx apartment where the laser had originated.
State authorities initially arrested another man who was in the apartment with Balaguer, but Balaguer told a Bronx judge that he had shined the green light beam.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said lasers have the ability to incapacitate and injure pilots.
"Thankfully, this case did not end in tragedy, but Elehecer Balaguer's actions were serious and posed a danger," he said. "Others should understand that they will be prosecuted criminally if they engage in this conduct."
Outside court on Tuesday, Balaguer was teary as he described himself as psychotic and said the deaths of his parents and brother were overwhelming him.
"It's too much for me," he said. "I'm trying to get my life together."
Defense attorney Manuel A. Sanchez Jr. said he will ask that Balaguer not serve time in prison.