Popular laser toy lands man in Pa. jail Gadget harmed vision of employee at park, court documents say

August 12, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore college student was jailed and could face up to six years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines if he is convicted of assaulting an amusement park employee. His "weapon": one of the red-dot-throwing laser pointers that have become the latest summer fad.

The student, Michael Lee Woods, 21, has no criminal record and probably would not serve additional jail time, his attorney said. But Woods could walk out of court with a criminal record and owing fines and attorney fees. The incident has cost him $1,000 already.

Woods is charged with simple assault and recklessly endangering another person last month. He is accused of shining the laser beam into the eyes of a worker at the Great Bear roller coaster at Hersheypark in Pennsylvania.

The serious nature of the charges is an indication of the growing frustration of police in several jurisdictions over proliferation of the lasers.

The bullet-sized gadgets shine a dime-sized beam up to 1,500 feet. Their cost has dropped considerably over the past year -- to as low as $10 -- and that has caused flurries of red dots to appear at places where young people gather.

Ocean City passed an ordinance last month calling for fines for those who annoy others with the lasers.

Woods, a student at Essex Community College, stopped shining the laser when he was asked to, according to court papers, but he was stopped as he left the park and then placed under arrest. He spent a night in jail before posting bond.

"It's clearly a case of overkill, maybe of trying to make an example out of him," said his attorney, William Fetterhoff of Harrisburg, Pa. "The ride attendant asked him to stop doing it, and he did stop doing it. There was no second episode."

Said Woods' mother, Mary Woods of Spring Grove, Pa.: "They act like he was trying to kill someone."

Hersheypark security officials say the lasers are a growing problem, although not nearly as much as on the Eastern Shore, where red dots are showing up on the beach like runny noses at a preschool.

Security guards at the park confiscate two or three lasers a day from patrons, whether they are being pointed at other people or not, said Tim Shellenberger, director of safety and security at Hersheypark.

He said patrons can reclaim their lasers as they exit the park.

"From my standpoint, I don't see any good in them," he said. "I don't see any thrill in shining a light on people."

Woods said he had been waiting in line for the roller coaster during the Fourth of July weekend and pulled out the laser. He was shining it on the poles of the ride, he said, when he was approached by an attendant and asked to put the laser away.

But after riding the coaster and leaving the park, he was arrested and jailed in lieu of $10,000 bail.

"It may have gotten into the guy's eyes, I really can't say that it didn't," Woods said in an interview yesterday. "That's not what I was trying to do. If it hit him, I don't think that's worth all this trouble."

The ride operator complained of blurred vision from the gadget, according to the court papers.

Doctors say fleeting contact with the laser beam poses little risk to eyes. Prolonged exposure -- 10 seconds or so -- could cause a burn of the retina, they say.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 25 in Harrisburg.

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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