Alabama man headed to prison for pointing laser at sheriff’s helicopter

Published 8:47 pm Thursday, September 16, 2021

An Alabama man has been sentenced to eight months in federal prison for aiming a laser at a helicopter last year.

U.S. District Judge Anna M. Manasco sentenced Gabriel Lopez Mathews, 27, who pleaded guilty to the charge in April, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama said Wednesday in a news release. The maximum penalty for aiming a laser at an aircraft is five years in prison.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Star 1 helicopter was helping the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency in a nighttime operation to recover stolen firearms on April 11, 2020. While flying below an approach path for the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, the sheriff’s helicopter received numerous laser strikes from a residence below.

After determining the street in Jefferson County where the strikes occurred, Birmingham Police officers responded but couldn’t find a suspect. However, they gathered information that later helped the FBI track down Mathews and obtain a confession.

“Pointing a laser at an aircraft can disorient the pilot and cause the aircraft to crash,” said U.S. Attorney Prim Escalona. “Laser strikes can be deadly, and individuals who put pilots and residents in the path of the aircraft in danger will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

The FAA reported 6,852 laser incidents in 2020, up from 6,136 in 2019 and 5,663 in 2018.