FBI targets sky-high sex attacks, as two men are charged with molesting passengers

One man is accused of molesting a woman who awoke in the middle of the attack, while another ‘trapped’ a woman in her window seat as he assaulted her

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 August, 2018, 10:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2018, 10:52am

Two men accused of sexually assaulting fellow passengers aboard separate airline flights have been federally charged in a move meant to signal a heightened response to in-flight sex crimes.

Prosecutors in Seattle claim the men isolated and attacked women in what amounts to textbook cases of in-flight sexual abuse. One man is accused of groping a sleeping woman while she was incapacitated by prescription medication and alcohol; the other is alleged to have used his position in an outside seat to force himself on another passenger.

In recent months, the FBI has publicised sexual assaults on airlines as reports of the crime have increased. Survivors and their advocates contend the airlines often fail to notify authorities when passengers are accosted.

Announcing the charges made on Thursday, the US attorney Annette Hayes credited the #MeToo movement with empowering victims of sexual assault to come forward.

“If there is one thing we’ve learned in this year of #MeToo, it is that, if we all work together and we call a crime a crime, we can make a difference,” said Hayes, western Washington’s top federal law enforcement official. “We can make a difference even on airplanes.”

The issue was pushed to the forefront in November, after the former Facebook executive Randi Zuckerberg publicly faulted Alaska Airlines for valuing “the money of harassers over the comfort of their passengers” after an in-flight incident.

If we all work together and we call a crime a crime, we can make a difference. We can make a difference even on airplanes
US attorney Annette Hayes

As Zuckerberg described it in a November 30 Facebook post, she and a colleague aboard a Los Angeles to Mazatlán, Mexico, flight were subjected to “explicit, lewd and highly offensive sexual comments” from another passenger before the flight departed. Rather than remove the man, flight attendants offered to reseat Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.

In March, Congress ordered the US Department of Transportation to draft rules requiring airlines to train flight crews to respond to in-flight sexual assaults and to report apparent assaults to authorities. The move was cheered by the flight attendants’ union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, with its president, Sara Nelson, praising it as a “long overdue” move to address “ what until recently has been a silent epidemic in every corner of our country ”.

In the charges announced Thursday, federal prosecutors accused Babak Rezapour, 41, of Van Nuys, California, of groping a sleeping woman on a January 10 Norwegian Airlines flight from London’s Gatwick airport to Seattle.

Prosecutors say the woman, drowsy from a combination of medication and a glass of wine, woke when Rezapour rubbed her right thigh, according to charging papers. The woman later told investigators Rezapour had groped her repeatedly as she attempted to wake. A crew member eventually found her curled on the aircraft floor near the lavatories, crying and shaking.

Police stopped Rezapour after the flight arrived in Seattle. According to court papers, he denied touching the woman. He has been charged with abusive sexual contact aboard an airliner.

Facing the same charge, Nicholas Matthew Stevens, 37, of Anchorage, Alaska, is accused of groping a fellow passenger on a March 8 Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage to Seattle.

Prosecutors claim Stevens pestered the woman during the flight, grabbing at her hand and resting his head on her shoulder. Stevens is alleged to have groped the woman’s breast and thigh; she later told investigators she felt trapped in her window seat. The woman went to police after her flight arrived. Stevens was contacted by police at the airport.

The allegations against Stevens and Rezapour describe patterns of abuse frequently seen by investigators.

According to the FBI, assailants most often attack women and unaccompanied children as they sleep on long-haul flights. The assaults generally occur after the cabin lights have dimmed, and are usually perpetrated against passengers in middle or window seats.

The number of reported in-flight assaults remains small, though it is increasing. The FBI received 63 reports of in-flight sexual assault in 2017, up from 38 in 2014. No one suggests those numbers capture the size of the problem.

Jay Tabb, the FBI special agent-in-charge for Washington state, said the rise appeared to be driven by an increase in reporting. Tabb encouraged passengers who believed they had experienced or witnessed sexual assault to contact the flight crew immediately and call 911 once they landed.

“Please know that it matters,” Tabb said, “and that the FBI will do everything it can to deliver justice.”