As the Spirit Airlines redeye took off from LAX to Chicago, the cabin lights dimmed, and passenger Dana LaRue fell asleep.
Hours later, she says she woke up to find the hands of the man in the next seat groping her chest and groin area.
“It was completely dark in the plane. Totally silent,” LaRue told the NBC4 I-Team. “His hands were all over my body."
The FBI has investigated a rash of sexual assaults on airplanes in the last year. The feds don’t keep statistics on how common this crime is, and say most cases go unreported.
“No one goes on a plane thinking this is going on happen,” said FBI Special Agent David Gates, who is based at LAX. “We have dozens of reports a year nationwide.”
The feds say most sexual assaults on airplanes happen on longer, nighttime flights, when the cabin is dark and many passengers are dozing off.
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“A lot of times there are very few witnesses to the crimes,” says the FBI’s Gates.
But there was a witness to the crime businessman Bawer Aksal committed on a flight from Phoenix to Newark last year, records show. He was convicted of criminal sexual assault and sentenced to federal prison for eight years.
According to court records obtained by the I-Team, Aksal put his hand through the clothes of the woman sleeping in the seat next to him, and groped her crotch, breasts, and other areas.
The FBI says passengers should always remain aware of a stranger in the next seat.
“If you want to take a nap, that’s fine. But don’t knock yourself out. Be aware of your surroundings,” Gates says.
A woman sitting next to Galen Fox on a Honolulu-to-LAX flight did knock herself out, with Dramamine, because she told authorities she had just finished final exams and wanted to sleep.
Fox, a state lawmaker from Hawaii, unzipped the woman’s pants while she was sleeping, and rubbed her crotch, according to court records.
When Dana LaRue was allegedly assaulted on that Spirit Airlines redeye, she didn’t report the incident until right after she got off the plane.
“I was stunned,” LaRue told NBC4. “I just felt completely sort of paralyzed and shocked.”
The FBI urges travelers who are assaulted in the air to report the incident before the plane lands.
“The best thing to do is to make sure the flight attendants know,” Gates says.
“There’s a lot of shame, there’s guilt, there’s fear of talking about it,” says Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, which advocates for victims of sexual assault.
But Giggans also urges victims to report the crimes immediately.
“If this isn’t exposed, then I think this will happen more frequently,” Giggans told NBC4.
The passenger assaulted by Galen Fox did tell flight attendants while the plane was still in the air, so they called airport police to meet the flight when it landed.
Court records say police took a statement from Fox, who admitted he’d sexually touched his seatmate. That helped the feds get a conviction for sexual molestation, and Fox was forced to resign from the Hawaii legislature.
The FBI says passengers should immediately report all crimes that occur on airplanes, and that they also provide victim support services. To report an assault in the air to the FBI, call 310-477-6565.
“I just know from now on, if I’m ever in that situation again, I’m going to try and scream my head off” right on the plane, LaRue says.