A 19-year-old Cathedral City man is facing a federal prison term for flashing a laser beam into the cockpit of a California Highway Patrol helicopter, disrupting a law enforcement operation, prosecutors said today.
Nathan Ramon Wells has entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, admitting his guilt in the June 3, 2009, incident, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Wells, who is free on $60,000 bail, pleaded guilty to one count of willfully interfering with the authorized operation of an aircraft. He had also been charged with attempted interference of the authorized operation of an aircraft, but that count was dropped under the plea deal reached last week.
The maximum penalty for the one charge is 20 years in prison. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office is seeking no more than 3 1/2 years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Pell said the defendant’s sentence could be as low as 12 months, depending on the findings of a court-ordered report on Wells’ background due before he appears before U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips in October.
On the night of June 3, 2009, a CHP air unit was called in to assist Cathedral City police responding to a burglary call in the 68-200 block of Santelmo Road.
As the two CHP officers were orbiting in the helicopter about 700 feet above the ground, trying to spot the area where the burglary was reported, their cockpit was lit up by a “bright green light,” according to the plea agreement narrative.
The officers were momentarily blinded and forced to turn away, losing sight of the action below.
“Officers then used their NightSun light to light up the vehicle from which the laser beam had emanated,” according to the document.
The helicopter crew tracked the vehicle through the city, until the driver finally parked outside a residence. A Cathedral City police officer was directed to the location and encountered Wells holding a pen-shaped laser light, prosecutors said. He was arrested on the spot.
During an interview with FBI agents in January, “the defendant admitted that he pointed a green laser at the helicopter, which he knew was a police helicopter,” according to the plea agreement, which says “he acted with reckless disregard for the safety of human life.”