Thursday, February 22, 2018
Public safety

Pasco sheriff’s pilots land, arrest man for pointing laser at them (w/video)

PORT RICHEY — A Pasco County Sheriff’s Office helicopter was helping deputies on the ground Tuesday night when the pilots said they were blinded by a red laser aimed at them from below.

"I got a guy lasering us pretty bad," Deputy Stephen Bowman said in a cockpit video released by the agency. He was the co-pilot and Tim Bullis was the pilot of the Bell OH-58 helicopter.

Whoever was pointing the laser wasn’t letting up, the Sheriff’s Office said, and there were no deputies on the ground free to drive over and put a stop to it.

So the pilots did it themselves.

They landed the sheriff’s helicopter in a nearby parking lot. Then Bowman jogged about five blocks and found Ryan Fluke, 27. That’s who deputies arrested on a felony charge for misuse of a laser pointer.

Bowman said Fluke was "slightly confused" and surprised to see one of the helicopter pilots at his front door.

"He had a hard time getting over that one," Bowman said.

The incident started shortly before 11 p.m. while deputies were dealing with a barricaded person in Jasmine Lake Estates. The helicopter arrived to help, but had to pull back so deputies on the ground could hear the person.

They were about 800 feet in the air when the moving red flash appeared about two miles north. They were temporarily blinded, the pilots said.

The 12-minute video showed the laser rapidly flashing on and off 10 times from a darkened home below. At one point, the video showed the person on ground, in the dark, checking their mailbox, then returning to the house and minutes later flashing the laser again.

"We actually had no available units (on the ground)," Bowman said Wednesday. "All of our resources were at the barricaded subject. We were running thin, so I took an opportunity where I knew it was safe."

They landed at the Portuguese American Cultural Association at 11205 Areca Dr, Bullis stayed with the Bell helicopter while Bowman headed for Fluke’s house at 7515 Ironbark Dr.

At first, Bowman said Fluke denied he was responsible for the red flashes. Soon more deputies arrived. Later, they said Fluke admitted that he pointed the laser at the helicopter "for fun" and "didn’t realize that a laser could travel a long distance." Fluke was released from the county jail Wednesday after posting $5,000 bail.

A small laser on the ground can pose a tremendous risk to pilots in the air. The beam can become much wider when it hits the cockpit and the glass can magnify it even more, possibly blinding and disorienting pilots.

"At night, low and making turns and you get struck by a laser, couple seconds and you can fall a couple hundred feet," Bowman said.

The 5-year veteran of the sheriff’s air unit said he’s had ground lasers pointed at him about eight different times. This is the first time he actually arrested someone for doing it.

"It shows that we’re serious," Bowman said.

Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at tyjohnson@tampabay.com. Follow @tylisajohnson.

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