Student guilty in security breach

Damascus resident, 20, sneaked banned items onto numerous aircraft

`Aim of improving public safety'

Plea bargain may allow Heatwole to avoid prison

April 24, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A college student from Maryland who drew attention to flaws in airport security by smuggling box cutters and other banned items onto airplanes six times in seven months pleaded guilty yesterday in a deal that could allow him to avoid jail time for what he called "an act of civil disobedience."

Nathaniel T. Heatwole, 20, of Damascus in Montgomery County, faces up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 for his guilty plea to the misdemeanor charge of violating security requirements at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

He also could face civil sanctions from the Transportation Security Administration or Southwest Airlines, the carrier aboard whose planes Heatwole stashed the items.

The plea deal likely will allow Heatwole to avoid jail time, however, and allow government authorities to avoid the public spectacle of drawing out the case. Heatwole sent e-mail messages to the TSA in September identifying himself and explaining what he had done - but the hidden items went undiscovered on the airliners for about five weeks.

Since his arrest last fall, Heatwole has met with FBI agents and authorities at the Transportation Security Administration to answer questions about airport security. He also provided a videotape recording for possible training use by airport security screeners, Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey E. Eisenberg said yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said Heatwole's age, clean criminal record and "motivations for the misguided conduct" were factors in the government's decision to reduce the charge against him. Heatwole initially faced one count of carrying a concealed dangerous weapon aboard an airliner, a felony that carries up to 10 years in prison.

"The government believes that the appropriate resolution of this case is a guilty plea to a misdemeanor rather than a felony because of the defendant's extensive cooperation with federal authorities," DiBiagio said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the TSA called the plea deal an appropriate resolution to Heatwole's case.

"We strongly believe that today's announcement on Mr. Heatwole holds him accountable for his actions and serves as a deterrent to those who would seek to bring prohibited items onto an aircraft," TSA spokeswoman Ann E. Davis said.

Heatwole, who arrived at Baltimore's federal courthouse with his parents, declined to comment outside court. His attorney, Charles S. Leeper of Washington, said he would not comment until after sentencing, scheduled for June 24.

Court records in Heatwole's case described an amateur airport screening sting in which Heatwole on six occasions carried prohibited items onto Southwest Airlines flights between Baltimore and Raleigh, N.C. Heatwole is a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.

Heatwole was charged in connection with his last smuggling effort, on flight out of BWI on Sept. 14. Authorities said he carried aboard three disassembled box cutters, a package of strike-anywhere matches and about 8 ounces of bleach.

He sent an e-mail to the TSA the next day to tell them about that incident and five others dating to February 2003. In the e-mail, Heatwole acknowledged that his actions were illegal but described them as "an act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public." He signed the e-mail "Sincerely, Nat Heatwole" and included his telephone number.

The e-mail did not prompt any action until more than a month later, however, when routine maintenance checks on Southwest Airlines planes in Houston and New Orleans turned up small plastic bags of contraband hidden behind panels in the lavatories of the two jets.

Heatwole's case generated congressional criticism of the TSA. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who oversees the agency, promised to improve the system for screening and investigating potential threats and tips from the public. But authorities also warned the public not to take airport security measures into their own hands.

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