The 16-year-old girl was drifting to sleep on her Alaska Airlines flight from Portland, Ore., to Anchorage on Tuesday when she felt a hand that wasn’t hers grab onto her thigh.
She pushed it away, according to a police report obtained by the Alaska Dispatch News, thinking the unsolicited touch might have been a mistake. Then it happened again, and suddenly, the girl told authorities, the man sitting beside her was kissing her on the mouth. He used his tongue.
The girl pushed him away, the Dispatch News reported, and tried to decline his advances. But the man grabbed at her thigh about five times, she told police.
Eventually, another man in their row intervened, flagging down a flight attendant when the girl said she did not know the man who was groping her. The pilot was notified, reported the Dispatch News, and the flight diverted to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
The man, identified by police as 23-year-old Jesse Salas, was separated from the girl until the flight could land, reported the Dispatch News.
The teen, who has not been identified by authorities, told police she felt violated and disgusted in part because Salas smelled and tasted of “stale beer,” according to a police report. When police met him at the airport gate in Seattle, he appeared intoxicated and bumped into passengers on his way off the plane, the Dispatch News reported. The girl remained on the flight and continued to Anchorage.
Salas, of Redondo Beach, Calif., was arrested on a charge of fourth-degree assault, records show, and booked into King County Jail on $1,000 bail. He was released on bond early Wednesday.
It’s the second airplane groping incident in a week, raising questions among parents about how to keep their unaccompanied children safe from predators in the air.
On June 15, 26-year-old Chad Cameron was arrested on a charge of abusive sexual contact after he was accused of molesting a 13-year-old girl on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Portland, Ore.
On the nearly empty flight, Cameron chose a seat next to the unaccompanied girl, according to the FBI. When a flight attendant came by the two for drink service 30 minutes later, she saw the man’s hand on the girl’s crotch, according to a criminal complaint.
The flight attendant also saw a tear streaming down the teen’s face.
“This was 30 minutes of hell for this young lady,” said Brent Goodfellow, a lawyer representing the girl.
He accused the airline of not adequately protecting the child and said the family plans to sue the airline.
“American cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for them,” the airline said in a statement to CNN.
Experts told the Associated Press that parents must remember that although airlines provide some assistance to children traveling alone, flight attendants are not nannies.