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Suspect charged with aiming laser pointer at police, medical helicopters

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(The Center Square) – A suspect who allegedly aimed a laser pointer at a Spokane County sheriff’s helicopter and a Life Flight medical transport helicopter last fall is facing felony charges.

A federal grand jury has indicted Johnny R. Blackstock on two counts of aiming a laser pointer at aircraft, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington announced Monday afternoon.

Blackstock, who is in his early 40s, was located and arrested in Spokane Valley shortly after the two incidents were reported around 8 p.m. on Oct. 13 in the vicinity of North Pines Road and East Mansfield Avenue. Spokane Valley police said a laser pointer was found in Blackstock’s pocket when he was searched by officers and he declined to answer questions at the time. He was initially booked in the Spokane County Jail and later released.

Police said a Spokane Regional Air Support Unit helicopter was on a regular patrol flight when the pilot and crew received “several strikes” from a green laser on the ground. The crew was not incapacitated and helped guide deputies to the suspect’s location.

During their investigation, deputies learned a Life Flight medical helicopter crew transporting a patient in the same area was also targeted by a green laser about 15 minutes prior to the incident involving the sheriff’s helicopter. The Life Flight crew safely completed its transport mission.

“Pointing a laser at an aircraft can have life-threatening consequences,” U.S. Attorney Vanessa R. Waldref said a news release on Monday. “Spokane County sheriff’s deputies protecting the community and first responders life-flighting a patient for medical help face extreme danger from actions like this.”

Along with local police, the case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Transportation and prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Cashman.

The grand jury indictment was handed down on Feb. 7. Blackstock is not currently in federal custody and a date has not yet been set for his initial court appearance, said Rob Curry, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane, on Tuesday.

In addition to criminal charges, individuals who purposely aim a laser at an aircraft can face civil penalties ranging up to $11,000 for a single violation and $30,800 for multiple violations, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Laser strikes on aircraft remain a serious threat to aviation safety,” the FAA says on its website. “Intentionally aiming lasers at aircraft poses a safety threat to pilots and violates federal law. Many high-powered lasers can incapacitate pilots flying aircraft that may be carrying hundreds of passengers.”

The agency says laser strikes remain at high levels across the nation, with pilots reporting 13,304 incidents to the FAA in 2023. That’s a significant increase from 2022 and 2021, when reported strikes totaled 9,457 and 9,723 respectively.