Sunday, June 14, 2009

Woman Detained for Exercising 1st Amendment Rights - Well, Maybe A Little Out of Control, Too!

Woman accused of smoking, swearing and hitting attendant on flight
Alan Gathright, Rocky Mountain News

June 19, 2008

Christina Seale *undated police mug shot.

Chaos broke out aboard a JetBlue plane after a flight attendant snatched a cigarette out of a woman's mouth, court records say.

Christina E. Szele, 35, is accused of flouting no-smoking rules and swearing and screaming racist slurs at a flight attendant, whom she allegedly socked in the jaw.

Szele, of Woodside, N.Y., was charged Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Denver with assaulting a flight attendant and interfering with a flight crew.

The pilot diverted the New York-to-San Francisco JetBlue flight to Denver International Airport on Tuesday. Frightened flight attendants and passengers said that a kicking, cursing woman was endangering everyone aboard, according to an FBI agent's arrest warrant statement.

Veteran flight attendants told the FBI that they never had faced such a disruptive passenger. A fellow traveler said that the woman was "beyond control" and "putting the plane in danger by thrashing about."

Flight attendants said they restrained the woman with plastic flex cuffs but that she slipped free to punch the flight attendant and threatened to kill him, the FBI statement said.

The ordeal began when flight attendant Dorotea Negoescu seized a cigarette and matchbook from the woman as she waited to use the airplane lavatory.

Smoking is illegal on U.S. commercial flights, with violators facing a $1,000 fine and a $2,000 fine for anyone tampering with a smoke detector in a plane's lavatory.

Flight attendant Naomi Garcia then found the woman "nonchalantly smoking at her seat," court records stated.

Flight attendant Paul Whyte said he snatched the cigarette out of the woman's mouth, telling her that she was "endangering everyone on the flight."

Whyte said that the woman accused him of punching her in the mouth, but the flight attendant told the FBI that he didn't touch her.

Because the woman was sitting in an emergency-row exit, Whyte told her for safety reasons that she would have to move to a front row. She began to kick and scream, Whyte told the FBI, so he bound her hands with the flex cuffs.

The woman slipped free and threw the plastic cuffs, allegedly hitting Garcia in the chest. When Whyte returned to place a second pair of cuffs on the woman, she allegedly punched him in the jaw.

The woman, who is white, then began swearing and shouting racist slurs at Whyte, who is black, according to several witnesses.

Whyte said he felt threatened when the woman said, "I'm going to get you" and threatened to kill him, according to court records.

During the struggle, flight attendant Garcia had an asthma attack and needed to use an inhaler.

The cuffed woman kept swearing, kicking a bulkhead wall and stomping the floor until the plane landed in Denver, witnesses said.

In a DIA holding cell, the woman told the FBI that she'd had two beers before the flight and three vodka drinks on board, but that she has a "high tolerance" for alcohol and felt fine.

She didn't recall smoking at her seat or hitting anyone, the FBI statement said. "If she did, she had to have been drunk during the flight. She blamed the crew for serving her the three vodka drinks," the FBI agent wrote.

A flight attendant said that the woman was just served one drink.

The woman said "she normally curses a lot" and "often uses the 'F' word," the FBI agent wrote.

Passenger Jason Caron said that the woman was "completely out of line" and "disruptive beyond control."

Szele, who is being held at Jefferson County jail, is scheduled for a detention hearing Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver.

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