A calm flight at 10,000 feet, then `people were screaming'

Md. student at center of `air rage' trial

January 05, 1999|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Bedlam at 10,000 feet.

That's the way flight attendant Renee Sheffer describes the final minutes of US Airways Flight 38, bound for Baltimore from Los Angeles on Dec. 16, 1997, when a 21-year-old Maryland college student allegedly went berserk, punched Sheffer and put the passengers in an uproar.

"All hell broke loose," Sheffer testified in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday, where the student, Dean William Trammel, is accused of assaulting and interfering with a flight attendant. "People were screaming. Children were crying."

The trial, which is expected to last most of this week, is addressing a global phenomenon that has come to be known as "air rage." Federal aviation officials say on-board violence is increasing worldwide, with more than 200 incidents of violence occurring last year over the United States alone.

The FBI charged Trammel because the alleged crime happened during interstate transportation. He could receive up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph L. Evans said.

Trammel has pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible for his actions, said Barry J. Pollack, an assistant public defender who is representing him.

"At the time that this occurred, he was not responsible for his actions as a result of a mental lness," said Pollack, who declined to identify the illness until later in the trial. "The government is not going to prove he committed the offense he is charged with."

Trammel was attending Santa Monica College in California at the time of the incident and was returning to his Silver Spring home for the holidays. Throughout most of the cross-country flight, he was passive and polite while drinking six Sprite sodas, Sheffer said.

But as the plane began its Baltimore approach, Trammel began to act bizarrely, Sheffer said.

"A passenger came up to me and said, `You've got to help me. There's a man back there that's lost control,' " the 35-year-old flight attendant from Charlotte, N.C., said. "So I went back and saw him standing there and I said, `Sweetheart, what's wrong?' And he told me, `I need to bless the passengers.' "

Trammel was reciting prayers and making blessing gestures with his hands, a process that "was obviously making the passengers nervous," Sheffer said.

"One of the passengers yelled an obscenity at him, and Mr. Trammel became agitated," Sheffer recalled. "He said he needed to go to the cockpit because the plane was going to crash and he needed to bless the pilot."

Sheffer said that fellow flight attendants blocked the entrance to the flight cabin with a food cart, and that she continued to try to get Trammel back to his seat.

"I grabbed his belt loop and said, `Sweetheart, it's going to be all right,' " she said.

But moments later, after another flight attendant ordered him to sit down, Trammel flew into a rage, Sheffer said. He pushed one attendant, "and then he flung me. That's when I went sailing over two rows of seats," she said.

It took four people -- including a military policeman who happened to be on board as a passenger -- to wrestle Trammel to the ground and put him in restraints as he thrashed and attempted to bite his captors, Sheffer said. All the while the passengers were screaming and yelling.

"Once we got him in restraints on the ground, he started praying again, and the military policeman wanted to step on his head with his cowboy boots," Sheffer said. "But I stopped him in time."

Trammel was taken into custody by federal agents after landing. He later told a pretrial services official that he had taken LSD before the flight, but sources said yesterday that he will exclude any mention of LSD for his defense.

The incident so shook Sheffer that she and her husband, Michael, have created a Web page called "Skyrage," which offers information and contact people on the subject of in-flight violence.

"Violence on airplanes is a trend that is growing on a global scale," Michael Sheffer said. He cited the case last month of a violent passenger on a Hungarian airliner who died after a doctor gave him a tranquilizer shot in an attempt to calm him down.

"A lot of people are getting on board drunk," Michael Sheffer said. "What we want people to be is responsible. If you're stuck in an airport for four hours, take it easy with drinking. It's easy to go into a sky rage."

Figures for 1998 incidents of airline violence haven't been computed, but federal officials estimate the number to be over 200. In 1997, there were 195 reports of passengers "interfering with a crew member," up from 174 in 1995 and from 96 in 1993.

Renee Sheffer said she felt some concern for Trammel on the night of the incident. She recalled that when she last saw him, he was tied up on the ground.

"I said, `Goodbye, sweetheart I love you. Take care of yourself," she said.

Trammel, she said, then waved back at her as best he could with a hand that was tied up.

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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