A Lynden man has been charged with federal crimes for allegedly shining a high-powered flashlight at a customs and border protection (CBP) helicopter last September.
A federal grand jury indicted Wayne Groen last week for allegedly interfering with the operation of an aircraft and two counts of incapacitating pilots while operating an aircraft. Both are federal crimes that carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
At about 9:30 p.m. on September 22, Groen allegedly came out of his home in his underwear and shined the high-powered flashlight at the helicopter and blinded the crew, who were wearing night vision goggles, according to testimony from FBI special agent Linwood Smith III. The helicopter crew was assisting border patrol agents who were involved in a suspected illegal border crossing investigation, CBP spokesman Mike Milne said.
The helicopter was about 500 feet off the ground when the light struck the pilots, forcing both of them to remove their goggles and fly away from the scene, Smith said. The two agents later returned to aide in the search for the light’s source.
CBP agents determined the light was coming from near a house on H Street east of Blaine; the house at which Groen was found later that night, Smith said. CBP agent Ramon Sandoval found Groen sitting in his car in his driveway with flashlight in hand, wearing only his underwear.
Groen admitted in later interviews with CBP agents that he was the one shining the light at the helicopter, that it was “probably a bad idea,” and that he had “made things better” since CBP helicopters had not returned since the September 22 incident, Smith explained.
“Groen said he was upset at the time, and that he wanted to let the ‘Border Patrol’ know they were bothering him,” Smith told the court.
Groen declined to comment on the matter, at his attorney’s direction. Groen’s arraignment has been set for January 20.
Milne said the air/marine unit of CBP gets a few complaints every couple months about patrol helicopters flying over residential areas. Most of these come during the summer, when the days are longer and residents are more likely to be outside in the evening, he explained.
The majority of complaints come from residents calling about helicopter flights in the evening, Milne said.
The air-marine unit fields most of their complaints from people living near Bellingham International Airport, where their helicopters are based, he said.
Milne said anyone wanting to file a complaint about a CBP helicopter should call 360/734-7557 and dial extension 1.