Brookfield man charged with pointing laser at plane

Pilot pinpointed location using video, Web maps

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By BOB UPHUES

Just days after a Chicago man was slapped with a 30-day jail sentence for pointing a laser at two aircraft, Brookfield police on April 4 charged a local man with pointing a laser on several different occasions at a commercial cargo plane flying near Midway airport last year.

Jason G. Heeringa, 29, of Brookfield, faces 14 misdemeanor counts of aggravated assault for shining a green laser at a small cargo plane after he was identified by agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

FBI agents got a huge assist from the plane's pilot, who used Google Earth to pinpoint the general area the light was coming from.

J.J. Guerra, a pilot from Ohio, put a video camera in the cockpit of his small cargo plane after someone pointed a laser at his airplane for the first time on April 30, 2010. Then he helpfully posted video of the laser shining at his plane and evidence of its location on YouTube.

The camera caught flashes of green light coming at the plane which was about five nautical miles northwest of Midway Airport, flying at 4,000 feet at about 2 a.m. on June 16, 2010. Guerra used his plane's position and groupings of street lights, which he determined were at Lincoln School and three parking lots on Gerritsen Avenue, to frame the area.

Overlaying a map on the area, he deduced that the laser was shining up at him from somewhere in the vicinity of Prairie and Congress Park avenues.

FBI agents took that evidence and began their investigation, by knocking on doors in the area. They eventually came to a residence in the 4300 block of Prairie Avenue and talked to one of the occupants who mentioned someone who lived there had a laser pointer.

Heeringa reportedly admitted his actions and turned over the hand-held laser pointer to FBI agents, who turned him over to Brookfield police. In all, Heeringa was charged in connection with seven separate incidents. He was charged with two counts of aggravated assault for each incident.

The FBI was involved in the investigation, according to FBI spokesman Ross Rice, because the agency investigates all such incidents.

"Our interest in these cases stems from the intended destruction of an aircraft," Rice said. "There's a statute under which we investigate these cases."

In addition, Rice said, the lasers "interfere with the pilot's ability to land the aircraft."

"These incidents take place at night and on final approach to the airport," Rice said. "I'm told that when the laser light hits the glass, it acts like a prism and can temporarily blind the pilot and co-pilot."

In March, two Chicago residents were arrested and charged with pointing a laser at a commercial plane and a Chicago police helicopter. On April 1, Elvin Slater, 24, pleaded guilty and received 30 days in jail. Shania Smith, 22, awaits her trial in the case.

According to a report issued in January by the Federal Aviation Administration, there were a record number of incidents of people pointing lasers at planes - 2,800 - in 2010. Chicago's O'Hare Airport was second in the nation with 98 incidents, just behind Los Angeles International Airport, which reported 102 incidents.

The problem has become such a nuisance that U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois in February succeeded in inserting an amendment into a pending FAA authorization bill that would make it a federal crime to "knowingly aim a laser pointer at an aircraft." The amendment states that anyone convicted of such a crime could face a prison term of up to five years. The amendment passed by a count of 96 to 1 in the Senate.

"I hope this amendment serves as a wake-up call to violators and curbs this dangerous practice," said Kirk in a press release issued on the occasion of the amendment's passage.

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