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Canadian faces charges in U.S. after allegedly stealing plane

April 8, 2009 - A Canadian flight student charged with piloting a stolen plane into the U.S.  was described Tuesday an excellent student who didn’t seem unhappy.


April 8, 2009
By Colin Perkel

April 8, 2009 – A Canadian flight student charged with piloting a stolen plane into the U.S. in an apparent bid to commit suicide by getting shot down by military jets was described Tuesday an excellent student who didn’t seem unhappy.

Adam Leon, 31, was arrested at a convenience store in Ellsinore, Mo., shortly after a pilot landed the single-engine, four-seat Cessna on a rural Missouri road Monday night following a wild scramble involving U.S. F-16 fighter jets. The six-hour flight prompted a brief evacuation of the Wisconsin Capitol and warnings to commercial aircraft over Chicago and other cities.

The plane was reported stolen Monday afternoon from Confederation College Flight School at Thunder Bay, Ont., International Airport.  The college said the flight was unauthorized but that Leon was enrolled in its program.

U.S. federal prosecutors, who have charged Leon with transportation of stolen property and illegal entry, said Leon told them he flew the plane into the U.S. expecting to be shot down. The federal complaint also says Leon told authorities he recently was being treated by a psychiatrist.

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Leon was jailed in St. Louis and does not yet have an attorney. A federal detention hearing is set for Friday.

He would face up to 10 years in prison if convicted and would serve any sentence in the U.S. before being deported, U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway said.

Leon’s neighbour in Thunder Bay, Ont., Lorraine Beaudry said the student had recent trouble with a girlfriend but didn’t seem depressed.

“He didn’t have a lot of friends. He kept to himself, but to know him as depressed? Definitely not,” Beaudry told radio station CKPR.

“He was a very nice kid.”

Beaudry said Leon was an avid nature photographer and liked to canoe.

Pat Lang, the president of Confederation College, said he had “absolutely not” shown any questionable behaviour.

“He was described as being an excellent student by his faculty members,” said Lang, who called Leon personable, polite, pleasant and engaged.

Leon, who was readmitted to the program in the fall after failing in 2007, passed his cross-country solo flying test last week.

Aviation students have access to the hangar and the college would now do a thorough review of its aviation policy in light of the incident, Lang said.

“When the planes are beside the hangar, the keys are kept in the aircraft.”

The plane, which flew for six hours, was tracked as a “flight safety issue” and was not believed to be a terrorist threat, said Mike Kucharek, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defence Command.

A background check of Leon showed no connection to terrorism, the FBI said.
Justin Watson, the Missouri state trooper who arrested him, said Leon told him he had hoped to be shot down.

Watson said Leon was almost out of fuel when he picked his landing spot, a hilltop on a former stretch of U.S. 60 that is now just a paved loop off the main highway.
“How he avoided the power lines is anyone’s guess. He stated that he didn’t want to land on the four-lane highway because he was surprised about the amount of traffic on the road for no more populated than it was.”

“He was actually in a little better spirits than I thought he would be for a person who was suicidal,” Watson said. “He seemed to want to talk and for people to know why he had done what he had done.”

RCMP spokesman Sgt. Marc LaPorte said Canadian police were treating the incident as a simple theft rather than an international incident.

“It is still a joint investigation between the RCMP and Thunder Bay police service in regards to the theft as well as to any aeronautic or Transport Canada offences that this individual” allegedly committed, LaPorte said.

U.S. immigration officials said Leon was born in Turkey with the name Yavuz Berke, but moved to Canada and became a naturalized citizen last year.

The plane was intercepted by F-16 fighters from the Wisconsin National Guard after crossing into the state near the Michigan state line.

The pilot flew erratically and didn’t communicate with the fighter pilots, Kucharek said at Norad headquarters. The pilot acknowledged seeing the F-16s but didn’t obey their non-verbal commands to follow them, Kucharek said.

The plane’s path over Wisconsin prompted a brief, precautionary evacuation of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, although there were few workers in the building at the time and the governor was not in town.

The Cessna 172 continued south over Illinois and eastern Missouri before landing near Ellsinore, about 200 kilometres south-southwest of St. Louis. The plane landed about six hours after the reported theft, and had enough fuel for about eight hours of flight, NAADC officials said.

Watson told ABC that the pilot apparently hitched a ride to the convenience store after landing on a highway and taxiing the plane to a side road, and didn’t appear surprised when the officer entered the convenience store to arrest him.

Marilyn Simmons, owner of the convenience store, worried about terrorism when a relative called to tell her about the plane.

“My husband went and got his guns and gave me one,” Simmons said.
She then called the store and told workers to watch out. Sure enough, Leon showed up after a young man who stopped to offer help gave him a ride.

“He gave him $2 and dropped him off,” Simmons said. “He asked for the bathroom, then got a Gatorade and sat down at the table. He was there when they came and got him. He was smiling when he went out.”

THE CANADIAN PRESS
_ With files from The Associated Press