Mental evaluation ordered for man accused in flight attack
BOSTON (AP) — A man charged with attacking a flight attendant and attempting to open an airliner’s emergency door on a cross-country flight over the weekend remained in custody Thursday after a federal court ordered him to undergo a mental health evaluation.
Francisco Severo Torres, 33, of Leominster, Massachusetts was arrested Sunday when United Flight 2609 from Los Angeles landed in Boston, and made his first court appearance for a bail hearing. A magistrate judge postponed the detention hearing until after the mental health evaluation is completed.
Torres is charged with a felony related to interfering with flight crew members using a dangerous weapon. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors say he tried to stab the crewmember with a modified metal spoon.
Prosecutor Elianna Nuzum requested the evaluation, saying Torres’ police record and his actions on the plane indicate he is mentally ill and unable to understand the court proceedings.
Torres objected to the evaluation through his federal public defender, Joshua Hanye.
Handcuffed and wearing a beige prison overall, Torres asked if he could address the court, saying “the God, the Son and the Holy Spirit say that I should,” but relented when the magistrate judge advised against it.
As Torres left the courtroom Thursday, he said “My name is still Balthazar,” a name he used during a rant on the plane. His attorney declined comment after the hearing.
The plane was about 45 minutes from Boston when the crew received an alarm that a side door on the aircraft was disarmed, according to court documents. One flight attendant noticed the door’s locking handle had been moved. Another saw Torres near the door and believed he had moved the handle.
Cabin pressure during flight prevents airplane doors from opening.
The crew told the captain that Torres was a threat and the plane should be landed as soon as possible, authorities said.
Lisa Olsen, who was sitting a few rows in front of Torres with her husband and daughter, recalled how he grew defensive when confronted by a flight attendant about the door. He started asking if the crew had cameras and how they knew it was him.
After the flight attendant left him, Torres started loudly rambling that his father was Dracula, which prompted a male and female passengers to try and calm him down. He also said he wanted to be shot so he could be reincarnated, Olsen said.
In video taken by Olsen, an agitated Torres can be heard threatening to kill people and promising a bloodbath.
“I will kill every man on this plane,” he says.
He also asks where the pilots were diverting the plane.
“Because wherever it is, there’s going to be a bloodbath everywhere,” he says in the video.
Torres then jumped over another seated passenger and stood in the aisle saying, “I’m taking over the plane.” A passenger behind him stood up and said, “Don’t even think about it.” Torres then started running down the aisle toward the front of the plane.
He then confronted a male flight attendant and started punching him. The flight attendant felt the metal spoon in Torres’ hand hit him on his shirt collar and tie three times, according to court documents.
Simik Ghookasian, one of the passengers who helped restrain the suspect, said that “everything just exploded in a few seconds.”
More than a dozen male passengers rushed down the aisle after Torres. He was subdued by several passengers and restrained until the plane landed.
“All of a sudden you hear a huge thud because they grabbed him and restrained him on the ground. There were four to six guys on top of him, restraining him,” Olsen said, adding her 17-year-old daughter was crying because she thought “that we were going to crash.”
For the next 30 minutes, passengers took turns holding him down. At one point, Torres broke free from zip ties that were on his hands and ankles but they kept him down, Olsen said. It reminded her of the passengers who fought back against hijackers on 9/11, saying that it “still gives me chills.”
Torres told investigators that he went into the airplane’s bathroom and broke a spoon in half to make a weapon, prosecutors said in court documents. They said Torres told authorities he wanted to open the door so that he could jump out, and that he knew opening the door would kill many people.
United Airlines said no one was injured.
Torres spent time in mental health facilities, according to lawsuits he filed. A local police chief says officers have dealt with him several times since 2014, mostly over family issues and mental health episodes.
Last year, officers responded to a reported disturbance at Torres’ home and found him outside in his underwear. He told them he was protesting climate change. Leominster Police Chief Aaron Kennedy told The Associated Press that Torres was charged in 2017 involving a domestic incident with his mother but that the charges were later dropped.
On Feb. 25, Torres visited a local barbershop and told patrons that he wanted to “die tonight at midnight” and wanted to get shot by 12 people with an AR-15 two times at point blank,” according to a police report.
Kennedy said it wasn’t until he saw the video from the flight last weekend that they realized it was the same person, and that his outburst at the barber shop included “the same rhetoric you heard on the airplane.”
This story has been corrected to show that Torres visited the barbershop on Feb. 25, not Feb. 26.