A 13-year-old girl from Dayton reported that she was sexually assaulted by another passenger on a United flight from Houston to Sacramento. The teen’s mother told KPRC 2 that the girl was traveling to visit her grandparents.
KPRC 2 does not identify the teen or her mother.
“He is not well, he does not sleep, he has nightmares, he vomits, he cannot eat; she is very, very upset,” the mother said.
The mother said her daughter was traveling with a friend and was in the middle seat. She said her daughter’s friend was in a window seat, with a male passenger in the aisle seat. The mother said that it was a night flight and that the incident occurred just as her daughter was falling asleep.
“My daughter had a blanket on her lap, she was drifting off to sleep when he put his hand under the blanket up her thigh and started grabbing her crotch,” the mother said. “When she opened her eyes, he was in front of her and he said, ‘Are you horny, baby?’ She pushed him, screamed and hit the emergency button right away.”
The mother said the United team took her daughter away from the man and immediately notified the FBI. The mother said a California FBI agent called her to say the man was in the United States on a work visa, was detained and had to be questioned through an interpreter, but denied touching the teen.
“It’s funny because he spoke clear English to my son, how come he suddenly doesn’t speak English?” said the mom.
The mother said the FBI agent also told her the man was released but ordered not to leave the state. A United official also told KPRC 2 that the man will not be allowed to travel on any United flights while the investigation is ongoing. The mother said she was told several passengers reported hearing her daughter yell for her help and her daughter’s friend reported seeing the man reach out from under the blanket.
“As soon as our flight crew became aware of these allegations, they reseated the customer and immediately called to notify the police of the matter. Police met the aircraft upon arrival in Sacramento and our teams will work with them to assist in their investigation,” a United spokesperson wrote to KPRC 2.
The mother said a family member will have to fly with her daughter when she returns home in July. The mother said she was initially told United would pay the cost of that ticket, but then a different employee changed course the next day. The mother noted that she did pay the $300 unaccompanied minor fee. According to United’s website, unaccompanied minors are given a special wristband, their seat assignment is chosen by the airline, and children are monitored by flight attendants throughout the flight.
A United spokesperson responded to KPRC 2’s follow-up question on this point by writing: “We are going to work with the family to find a good solution for them.”
The FBI investigates reports of crimes committed aboard airplanes and cruise lines. In 2019, the FBI provided airplane sexual assault reports with its own reporting code to better track these incidents.
Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Houston office, James Smith, was unable to comment directly on this case, but said it highlights the need for parents to have frank discussions with their children about inappropriate touching on a flight.
He said that not all predator actions are obvious.
“It’s very crowded on the plane and you’re very close to the other passengers, so it’s very easy for a predator to touch someone and for the victim to not realize it’s an actual assault,” Smith said.
Smith also suggests asking the airline to make sure your child is in an aisle seat so they’re more visible to flight attendants and other passengers. He also insists on not waiting to report a problem until landing. He said flight crews are instructed to immediately notify police on the ground. He said that waiting to report a crime could cost evidence.
“The aircraft after each flight is cleaned and the evidence could be destroyed,” Smith said.
The latest available FBI data shows 63 in-flight sexual assault investigations in 2017 and by 2019 that number increased to 119. The Houston FBI has a dedicated task force investigating all types of complaints from unruly passengers at Hobby, Bush-Intercontinental and Ellington. airports The task force reviews 15 to 20 cases per week.
“A good portion of the incidents are drug or alcohol related,” Smith said.
If you have been the victim of a crime on a flight or cruise, call the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or online at tips.fbi.gov.
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