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June 4, 2001
Author: Robert McCoppin, Daily Herald Staff Writer
Steven Tabloff has an apology and a warning for his fellow air passengers. Speaking out for the first time since his arrest Jan. 9, the Buffalo Grove man apologized for an air rage episode that made national news. His behavior on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Hong Kong prompted pilots to divert to Anchorage to have him arrested.
But Tabloff said there was a lot more to the story. He wants the public to know he is not the raging maniac he believes prosecutors and the media made him out to be.
He blames much of the problem on two little white pills combined with alcohol but says his misbehavior was blown out of proportion.
“Travelers, beware,” Tabloff said. “If you do it on the ground, you’re OK. If you do it in the air, you’ve got a legal problem.”
Confrontations in the air should be treated more seriously, federal officials say, because they can threaten the safety of the flight, and there is no way for victims or bystanders to escape.
“Passengers who choose to engage in unlawful behavior aboard an airplane put the flying public at risk,” the FAA states in a written policy.
In this case, a federal prosecutor said Tabloff admitted in court to throwing an empty airplane bottle at a child, spitting at passengers, and shoving a flight attendant.
Flight attendants subdued him and placed him in plastic handcuffs before the plane landed and FBI agents arrested him.
In a plea deal, prosecutors reduced a felony charge of interfering with a flight crew to simple assault.
Tabloff got three years’ probation but was ordered to pay United $30,000 in restitution for crew overtime and fuel.
Now, Tabloff is no longer welcome to fly on United. Before the incident, he was a frequent flyer who racked up well over 100,000 miles.
As marketing director for a company doing business in Asia, Tabloff, 44, flew frequently from the townhouse he shares with his wife and children in Buffalo Grove to an apartment in Hong Kong.
Before the 16-hour flight on Jan. 9, he asked his psychiatrist for something to help him sleep that would be safe with alcohol.
He said his doctor gave him a sample of Ambien, containing two pills and labeled “10 mg.” It said the “usual” adult dosage was one tablet, but Tabloff took two to be sure it would work.
After the flight’s departure was delayed, Tabloff began drinking Bloody Marys. He admits he might have had four to six drinks but says he spilled two.
At some point, Tabloff admits, he started getting “loud, belligerent and obnoxious.”
Tabloff concedes the allegations against him might have been true but maintains he can’t remember.
“I have no memory of anything that happened,” he said. “Nothing.”
After his arrest in Anchorage, Alaska, Tabloff was taken to a hospital, then to a pre-trial holding cell at Cook’s Inlet, where he spent two days in 23-hour lockdown in a cell with two other inmates.
From there, a judge released him to a halfway house, where he said drug dealers and other criminals laughed at his offense.
Tabloff accepted some blame for what happened but said the real culprit was involuntary intoxication caused by a reaction to the combination of pills and booze.
“I am the responsible party,” Tabloff said. “Obviously, I drank and took the pills.”
In addition to the Ambien, Tabloff said he also took Zoloft, an anti-depressant, for anxiety and Klonopin, a mild sedative, which he said was for a digestive problem.
Tabloff would not name his doctor.
Dr. Kenneth Busch, president of the Illinois Psychiatric Society, was not involved in the case but said, in general, those medications combined would not produce such behavior. Busch also said doctors generally advise their patients against mixing alcohol with psychotropic medication.
Yet a psychiatrist in Anchorage who saw Tabloff while he was being detained backed up his claims in a report submitted to the judge in the case.
“The effect of combining the medicines with alcohol is greater than the sum of the parts,” Dr. Marvin Weninger wrote. “In blunt terms, people will do and say things that they otherwise would never do were they not under the effect of those medicines.
“In my professional opinion the combination of substances, including the excessive dose of Ambien, probably explains his behavior on the day of arrest,” Weninger concluded.
The doctor, whom Tabloff paid $150 to process the report, also suggested temporary amnesia, or a blackout, could have affected Tabloff.
In court, Tabloff’s attorney asked a federal judge to dismiss the charges against him based on involuntary intoxication, but the judge refused. Involuntary intoxication can be considered in court but is not generally a sufficient defense, said Chuck Farmer, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Anchorage.
“The judge just didn’t buy it,” Farmer said.
Tabloff’s story elicited little sympathy from flight attendants.
“I’ve heard this so many times from people, ‘It wasn’t my fault,'” said Dianna Rushing, president of United’s O’Hare local of the Association of Flight Attendants. “As an adult, you need to understand the limits of taking medication, and if you drink on top of it – not a good idea with any medication – you can have a serious situation.”
A small number of passengers have been banned from flying United, Hopkins said, but it takes “a pretty egregious act.”
As for Tabloff, he lost his job, which he’s trying to get back, but he says he will find a way to pay the $30,000 restitution.
“I just happen to be a fairly normal citizen who got caught in a bad situation,” he said. “I was laid over a barrel. And I had to pay the full price.”
Record Number: 518788