Flight diverted due to groping incident

January 1, 2008 8:03:29 AM PST
Federal air marshals charged a Seattle-area man with groping a female passenger aboard a United Airlines flight that the pilot diverted to Pittsburgh because of the disturbance. Michael Lamar Holland, 46, appeared before a magistrate on Monday on a charge of abusive sexual contact, according to Ted Hresko, special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh air marshals' office.

Holland had been chatting with a 39-year-old woman Sunday on United Flight 917, which was bound for Seattle from Dulles International Airport near Washington D.C., he said.

"The next thing you know, he's groping her," Hresko said. "The flight attendants asked our (air marshals) to get involved."

A witness saw Holland stroking the woman's hair while she was trying the sleep, according to an affidavit filed with the court. Moments later, Holland fondled the woman who repeatedly objected and tried to get away from him, the affidavit said.

Holland was handcuffed by air marshals and taken to an empty seat in another part of the plane. The pilot opted to divert the flight to Pittsburgh so Holland could be removed, Hresko said.

"I think I'm still in a bit of shock," the woman who made the accusations told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Monday.

United Airlines officials did not immediately return a call for comment.

The flight left Dulles carrying 182 passengers at 6:08 p.m. and landed in Pittsburgh about an hour later. Pittsburgh airport officials said the flight continued on to Seattle at 9:35 p.m.

Holland was released on bond and the court was to appoint an attorney for him before he returns for a Jan. 7 court appearance, said Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh. Holland was held overnight in the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh prior to appearing before the magistrate, Hresko said.

Holland did not appear to be intoxicated when he was taken into custody Sunday night, Hresko said.

"There was no alcohol on his breath, and when he was interviewed he said he hadn't had a drink for five years," he said. "We have no reason to believe that he was drunk or on any kind of narcotic."

Abusive sexual contact is a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and $1,000 fine, Hresko said.