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Officials warn of ‘alarming increase’ in sex attacks on female plane passengers

In 2022, the FBI explained that sexual assaults on aircrafts were often different to other scenarios, as the victims tend to not know the perpetrator  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
In 2022, the FBI explained that sexual assaults on aircrafts were often different to other scenarios, as the victims tend to not know the perpetrator (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Two offenders have pleaded guilty to separate incidents of sexual assault on planes flying into Seattle, as prosecutors warn that reports of incidents keep on coming.

On Friday, Jack Roberson, 69, entered his guilty plea over an incident on a flight from Vancouver in July 2023.

Mr Roberson placed his hand on a 15-year-old girl’s thigh and then moved it up her leg and under her skirt.

The victim told her guardian and Mr Roberson was arrested on arrival in Seattle.

Earlier last week, another defendant pleaded guilty to abusive sexual contact, following a separate incident in a flight from Phoenix on 20 March 2023.

Duane Brick, 53, took the hand of the woman he was sitting next to and placed it on his crotch, while she appeared to be asleep. He then reached under her skirt and touched her breast.

The pair are both due to be sentenced in June.

Announcing the outcomes, US Attorney Tessa M Gorman said the prosecutions came after a spike in reports of women being sexually abused on aircraft across the US.

“The Western District of Washington continues to see an alarming increase in sexual abuse cases aboard aircraft,” Ms Gorman said in a press release.

“Last August we emphasised that we have zero tolerance for such assaults. Sadly, we continue to learn of new allegations and are investigating and charging those cases.”

The attorney was referring to an announcement in August 2023, which included Mr Roberson and Mr Brick’s cases, in which officials said 2023 had seen an uptick in cases.

The FBI investigated 27 sexual misconduct cases aboard aircraft in 2018. By 2022 that number had more than tripled to 90 cases.

By August 2023 62 cases were under investigation.

That trend appears to have continued, with the attorney announcing another indictment in the past week.

Abhinav Kumar, a 38-year-old Indian citizen, was arraigned on a charge of abusive sexual contact, after allegedly assaulting a teenager who was sat near him on an Emirates flight into Seattle on 18 February.

He pleaded “not guilty” on Friday and a trial before US District Judge Jamal N Whitehead is scheduled for 6 May 2024.

Speaking in August 2023, FBI special agent Richard A Collodi said the bureau was committed to investigating such crimes.

“It is imperative for people to understand those who commit these types of crimes aboard aircraft will be held accountable,” he said.

“I’m concerned at the increase of these incidents and assure the travelling public the FBI and our partners will continue to investigate and prosecute any offender who victimises someone on a plane.”

In 2022, the FBI explained that sexual assaults on aircrafts were often different to other scenarios, as the victims tend to not know the perpetrator.

“Offenders have many opportunities to spot and evaluate ideal targets, including in the airport prior to departure, during the boarding process, or upon locating their seats,” a blog post by the FBI read.

“Their willingness to find someone to violate and act quickly underscores the brazenness of these subjects. They often have a history of sexual assault and are skilled in identifying targets from years of experience.”

At the time, the FBI said agents were clearing more cases for full criminal investigations and that the increase in reports may be down to victims feeling greater confidence in coming forward.