German spends 10 months in jail for nature's call

October 24, 1993|By Newsday

A drunken German student spent 10 months in a Florida jail on hijacking charges after his demand to visit the bathroom during an airplane takeoff was misinterpreted as a bomb threat.

The 23-year-old student, Johann Peter Grzeganek, told a flight attendant in broken English that the "roof would go" as she tried to get him to return to his seat on an American Transair L-1011 that was taking off from Fort Lauderdale Airport bound for Hanover, Germany, on Jan. 4.

Mr. Grzeganek, who was intoxicated, struggled with attendants and repeated the statement, which they interpreted as a bomb threat, rather than German slang for emptying his bladder. He pushed past them to the restroom, relieved himself, returned to his seat and passed out.

The pilot dumped the plane's fuel load at sea and turned the aircraft, carrying 326 passengers and a crew of 12, back to the Fort Lauderdale Airport.

Mr. Grzeganek, who had gone to Florida for a two-week vacation with a friend, has been held on $100,000 bail ever since, with the government insisting that he had made a serious threat. He was indicted on four counts of interfering with a flight crew and one charge of threatening to detonate a bomb.

He pleaded guilty in August to four counts of interfering with a flight crew and faced a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The case took a turn at a sentencing hearing when the judge, a student of German colloquialisms, indicated that he believed the defendant's story. U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger questioned two of the attendants in the crew the day of the incident, including the only one who spoke German. He asked that attendant whether she had ever heard the phrase "then the roof flies," which he said was slang for going to the bathroom. She said she hadn't, and continued to insist that Mr. Grzeganek had made a bomb threat.

Judge Roettger accepted the plea Wednesday and sentenced Mr. Grzeganek to time served.

"It is a disgrace he's been in jail this long," Mr. Roettger said. "Do you see anything that happened that couldn't have been remedied by letting this man go to the bathroom?"

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