PORTLAND, Oregon — An Oregon man who said he dealt with the grief from his girlfriend's death by pointing a high-powered laser pointer at commercial airliners has been sentenced to six months in federal prison.
Stephen Bukucs, 40, of Portland, spoke at length Monday about his girlfriend's death from an epileptic seizure after years of declining health. Following the death, the former security guard said he withdrew from his friends and family, abused prescription painkillers for a back injury and developed what would become an unhealthy interest in the laser pointer.
"At the time I did these things, I was a mental and emotional wreck," he told U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman.
Police arrested Bukucs in 2013 after he pointed the laser at two flights arriving at Portland International Airport. A United pilot on a flight with more than 150 passengers compared the laser's intensity to the sun in the way it lit the darkened cockpit.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer said Bukucs told FBI agents he pointed lasers at planes at least 20 times before. Bukucs would listen to the police scanner through an earpiece and then duck into his apartment to avoid capture.
"He admitted that he was playing a cat-and-mouse game with the police; that was how he got excitement out of this," Peifer told the judge.
Authorities caught Bukucs after flying decoy airplanes. A laser struck one of the decoys, and the plane relayed the light's origin to police on the ground. Investigators installed surveillance cameras that recorded Bukucs in action.
Though aware the laser could annoy pilots, Bukucs said he did not have malicious intent.
"I was just being stupid," he said. "I look back now and I'm so embarrassed by my actions."
The judge said the trend of people pointing lasers at planes has yet to cause a crash, but the risk is real when a pilot is trying to land at a busy airport.
"A variety of people commit this crime in a variety of ways," Mosman said. "There are stupid teenagers who do it once; there are people who have done it maliciously, secretly hoping to bring down an aircraft."
Mosman said he considered Bukucs' case to lie somewhere in the middle.
He rejected the prosecutor's request for a two-year prison sentence, granting some leniency because Bukucs was suffering from mental illness at the time of the crime. The judge, however, said it was a tough case to figure.
"If someone's hungry and they steal bread, then their condition makes sense in terms of how it impacted their crime," he said. "And if someone is addicted to cocaine and they steal to buy more cocaine, then you can see some kind of connection between their condition and the crime they committed.
"When someone is profoundly depressed over the death of their fiancee, and points a laser at an airplane, that connection is harder to make."
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