Peter Guadagnino, who is representing Nixon, said his client denies the allegations. Jacob Barclay Mitchell, who is representing Zavala, and Mia Eisner-Grynberg, who is representing Torres, declined to comment.
According to an indictment unsealed Thursday, the alleged incident took place at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sept. 22. The three women were scheduled to leave on a 12:55 p.m. flight to Puerto Rico, but they were acting belligerent and one appeared to be “visibly disoriented and possibly intoxicated” when approaching the boarding area, prosecutors said. One woman also refused to properly wear her mask.
In a separate filing in the case, prosecutors said the women had been scheduled to depart on an earlier flight slated to leave at 8:10 a.m. but were rebooked. In the time before their 12:55 p.m. departure, prosecutors allege, surveillance videos and receipts from bars and restaurants at the airport showed the women ordered about nine alcoholic beverages. When Nixon approached the gate, she was holding a clear to-go cup filled with an orange beverage that smelled alcoholic, according to court documents.
The gate agent reported the women’s behavior to the flight crew, and the flight’s captain and another crew member determined the trio should not be allowed to board the plane. After an airline security officer asked the women to leave the jetway, they refused, then began yelling and cursing, according to the filings.
The filings allege Nixon tapped the security officer on the head, then took his radio and began hitting him with it until he fell to the ground. When another employee tried to help the officer, Zavala punched that employee in the face, according to prosecutors. All three women then began punching and kicking the officer as he was on the floor. Torres allegedly stepped on his head and face, causing his upper lip to bleed. When he tried to get up to seek help from other crew members, the women allegedly grabbed him by his vest, tearing it.
Members of the flight crew eventually pulled the guard behind the glass doors of the jetway. The three women continued to “scream and strike at the flight crew.”
Both the gate agent and security officer were hospitalized and have not returned to their jobs, according to court papers.
In a statement that accompanied the announcement of the arrests and indictments, Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said: “The extreme and aggressive behavior in connection with our air travel is out of control. This office has zero tolerance for violent conduct that threatens the safety of airline passengers and employees and will prosecute defendants who allegedly engage in such conduct to the fullest extent of the law.”
The number of incidents involving unruly passengers has risen sharply during the coronavirus pandemic, fueled in part by the federal mask mandate for transportation. Unions representing airline workers have repeatedly called on the Justice Department to more aggressively prosecute such cases.
In November, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed federal prosecutors to prioritize investigations into such crimes.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there have been 76 reports of such incidents so far this year. Last year, there were nearly 6,000 reports of unruly passenger behavior, and the agency initiated investigations into more than 1,000 incidents. The vast majority of incidents involve passengers who refuse to cooperate with the requirement that they wear a mask when flying.
While much attention has focused on passengers who act out on flights, there have also been incidents at airports.
The Transportation Security Administration, charged with enforcing the federal mask mandate in airports, on trains and in other transportation settings, said in September that it received more than 4,000 reports of mask-related incidents since the requirement was put into place last year.