US veteran charged in airline bomb hoax
NEW YORK — A decorated US veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was charged Wednesday with making a false bomb threat causing the emergency diversion of a Delta flight from Paris.
Derek Stansberry, 27, faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of interfering with the flight bound to Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday and five years for pretending that he had a bomb, the Department of Justice said.
“Making false bomb threats on an aircraft and interfering with the flight crew are serious crimes that have serious consequences,” said the US prosecutor for Maine, Paula Silsby.
The mid-flight drama involving Stansberry and several undercover air marshals ended when the Delta plane diverted to an airport in Maine to deal with what officials initially referred to as a “disruptive” passenger.
Stansberry, who may have been under the influence of the tranquilizer Ambien, turned out not to have a bomb.
US security services already traumatized by the September 11, 2001, suicide hijackings have been on heightened alert since an alleged attempt to set off a bomb on a plane flying to Chicago on Christmas Day last December.
In a separate incident Wednesday, a plane operated by Continental Airlines was diverted to North Carolina while flying to Washington because a threatening message was found on the bathroom mirror.
The stunning twist in the Delta incident was the revelation that the suspect was no less than a former Air Force intelligence specialist with medals for bravery.
Prosecutors allege that Stansberry passed a note to the flight attendant saying he was not an American citizen and that his passport was fake, as well as a request stating: “Please let my family know the truth.”
After the flight attendant passed the note to an air marshal traveling aboard the plane, Stansberry was taken into custody.
He allegedly “told the air marshals that he had dynamite in his boots, which were located in his backpack, and that a pressure plate switch would detonate the dynamite. Stansberry also allegedly stated that there were explosives in his laptop.”
The air marshals took the incident seriously enough to remove the laptop and boots to the back of the plane where they attempted to cushion the items from the rest of the aircraft, which was diverted to Bangor, Maine.
However, after a search “no explosive devices were located on the plane or in the luggage,” the Department of Justice said.
During questioning, Stansberry allegedly told police that he possessed classified documents and feared “people on the plane were following him, ridiculing him and using interrogation techniques on him,” the Department of Justice said.
The bomb hoax, he allegedly said, had been meant to distract attention.
He then said that “he did not actually possess any explosive device and that he did not have the ability to make one.”
Officials said that Stansberry indicated he was under medication and had taken one Ambien, a sleeping aid, earlier in the day. The air marshals also said he had told them he had taken eight Ambiens and previously used Valium.
Ambien has been widely blamed for strong side effects. In 2006, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, from the famous Democratic political clan, said he was under the influence of Ambien when he crashed his car near the Capitol building.
According to Air Force spokeswoman Major Angie Blair, Stansberry is a “former active duty airman. He served from June ’05 to June ’09. He was an intel specialist.”
“He got a few medals, including the Afghan campaign medal and the Iraq campaign medal as well as the Air Force outstanding unit award with valor,” she said.
The suspect’s father, who lives in Florida, told ABC television news that he hoped it was “a simple misunderstanding.”
The father, Richard Stansberry, said his son had served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and was now a private government contractor overseas, but that he kept the details of his work secret.