Pilot gets 2 years in theft, foray into U.S. Canadian had hoped to be shot down — (St Louis Post-Dispatch)

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St Louis Post-Dispatch

November 04, 2009 12:00 am

 BY HEATHER RATCLIFFE • hratcliffe@post-dispatch.com 

November 3, 2009

ST. LOUIS A Canadian student pilot who stole a plane in hopes he would get shot down when he crossed the U.S. border was sentenced Tuesday in St. Louis federal court to two years in prison.   Adam Dylan Leon, 31, admitted that on April 6, he used his student key card to steal a fully fueled, four-seat Cessna 172 from the Thunder Bay, Ontario, flight school he attended.

U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw gave Leon a longer sentence than outlined in federal guidelines which was 12 to 18 months.  “Under the guidelines, this is treated like a stolen car,” Shaw said. “This is very serious. I think this is an extraordinary situation in terms of cost and the hours involved. And it posed a significant disruption to government.”

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection plane and two Wisconsin Air National Guard F-16 fighters gave chase after Leon flew over Lake Superior and crossed the U.S. Border.  Ignoring radio calls, plane-to-plane hand gestures and warning flares, Leon had wandered south in a 7 1/2 hour pursuit that triggered the evacuation of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison and prompted alerts in a half-dozen Midwestern cities, including St. Louis.

Leon’s attorney, Lucille Liggett said her client suffered from severe depression after his parents were killed in a car crash in Turkey in 2002.  Soon after, Leon migrated to Canada to live with a cousin. Two days before the incident, his girlfriend called a suicide hotline and took Leon to the emergency room.  Depression medication had not yet taken hold when he decided to hijack the plane, Liggett said.

“He didn’t have any malicious intent,” Liggett said. “He was hoping he would die in a plane crash.”   Assistant U.S. Attorney John Sauer said the overwhelming cost of the response warranted a tougher sentence. Documents show that the pursuit costs the government roughly $230,000.

A lenient sentence would also embolden those who wish to harm the United States, he said.   “Mr. Leon posed a threat to our national security,” Sauer said. “We know now that he is not a terrorist, but other potential offenders may think they can get away with this too.”

Leon passed west of St. Louis at about 14,000 feet, and commercial flights heading to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport were warned to avoid him.  As the plane’s fuel gauge got low, Leon set down on a rural road near Ellsinore, Mo., about 120 miles southwest of St. Louis.   “I looked for an airport, but I couldn’t see any. So I landed on a rural highway,” Leon told the court.   Leon stashed the plane under an overpass and caught a ride to a nearby store to get a drink. That’s where the Missouri Highway Patrol caught up with him.

“I regret what I have done,” Leon said. “I wanted to end my life, but God gave me a second chance.”

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