HOUSTON – A 13-year-old girl from Dayton reported being molested by a fellow passenger on a United flight from Houston to Sacramento. The teen’s mother told KPRC 2 the girl was on a trip to visit her grandparents.
KPRC 2 is not identifying the teen or her mother.
“She’s not good, she’s not sleeping, she’s having nightmares, she’s been vomiting, she can’t eat; she’s very, very upset,” the mother said.
The mother said her daughter was traveling with a friend and was in the middle seat. She said her daughter’s friend was in a window seat, with a male passenger in the aisle seat. The mother said this was an evening flight and the incident happened just as her daughter nodded off.
“My daughter had a blanket over her lap, she was just falling asleep when he put his hand underneath the blanket down her thigh and started grabbing her crotch,” the mother said. “When she opened her eyes he was in her face and he said, ‘are you horny, baby?’ She pushed him off screamed and hit the emergency button immediately.”
The mother said United crew moved her daughter away from the man and immediately notified the FBI. The mother said an FBI agent from California called her to report the man was in the US on a work visa, he was detained and had to be questioned through an interpreter, but denied touching the teen.
“That’s funny because he spoke clear English to my child, how does he suddenly not speak English?” the mom said.
The mom said the FBI agent also told her the man was released but instructed not to leave the state. A United official also told KPRC 2 the man will not be allowed on any United flights while the investigation is ongoing. The mother said she was told several passengers reported hearing her daughter scream for help and her daughter’s friend reported seeing the man yank his hand back from under the blanket.
“As soon as our flight crew became aware of these allegations, they reseated the customer and immediately called ahead to notify law enforcement of the matter. Law enforcement met the aircraft upon its arrival in Sacramento and our teams will work with them to assist in their investigation,” a United spokesperson wrote to KPRC 2.
The mom said a family member will have to fly with her daughter when she returns home in July. The mom said she was initially told United would pay for the cost of that ticket, but then a different employee reversed course the following day. The mother pointed out she did pay the $300 unaccompanied minor fee. According to United’s website, unaccompanied minors are given a special wrist band, the airline chooses their seat assignment and flight attendants check on the children throughout the flight.
A United spokesperson responded to KPRC 2′s follow-up question on this point by writing, “We’re going to work with the family to find a good solution for them.”
The FBI investigates reports of crimes committed onboard aircrafts and cruise lines. In 2019, the FBI gave reports of sexual assaults on planes its own reporting code to better track these incidents.
Special agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Houston office, James Smith, couldn’t comment directly on this case, but said it highlights the need for parents to have frank discussions with their children about inappropriate touching on a flight.
He said not all predators’ actions are obvious.
“It is very tight on the aircraft and you’re very close to fellow passengers so it’s very easy for a predator to touch someone and for that victim not realizing it’s an actual assault,” said Smith.
Smith also suggests asking the airline to make sure your child is in an aisle seat so they are more visible to flight attendants and other passengers. He also stresses not to wait to report a problem until landing. He said flight crews are instructed to immediately notify law enforcement on the ground. He said waiting to report a crime could cost evidence.
“The aircraft after each flight is cleaned and the evidence could be destroyed,” Smith said.
The latest data available from the FBI shows 63 in-flight sexual assault investigations in 2017, and by 2019, that number climbed to 119. The Houston FBI has a task force dedicated to investigating all manner of unruly passenger complaints at Hobby, Bush-Intercontinental and Ellington airports. The task force reviews 15-20 cases a week.
“A good portion of the incidents are related to drugs or alcohol,” Smith said.
If you have been the victim of a crime on a flight or cruise, please call the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or online at tips.fbi.gov.