A Bulldog gang member convicted of pointing a high-powered laser at a police helicopter was sentenced Monday to spend 14 years in federal prison, a term prosecutors believe to be among the region's longest for such a crime.
Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, 26, was accused of pointing a green laser 13 times more powerful than common pointers at a Fresno Police Department helicopter in 2012. The helicopter had been called to an apartment complex near Fresno Yosemite International Airport after the Children's Hospital Central California helicopter crew reported they had been targeted by a laser from the ground in the area.
A federal jury found Rodriguez guilty of attempting to interfere with safe operation of aircraft and aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft.
It's the second recent conviction of a local man for pointing a laser at a helicopter. In January, Charles Conrad Mahaffey, 23, of Clovis, was sentenced to 21 months in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a Fresno County Sheriff's Office helicopter.
In pleading guilty, Mahaffey admitted he knew it was a crime to point the laser at an aircraft but stated he "just can't help himself from doing stupid things."
"This is not a game," U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner said in a statement. "It is dangerous, and it is a felony."
Attorney Dale A. Blickenstaff, who represented Rodriguez, could not be reached for comment Monday. But in court papers he argued for a shorter sentence, saying his client meant no harm while he played with his young family, aiming the inexpensive store-bought laser skyward. A sentence of five years seemed fitting, Blickenstaff said.
"Such a sentence is still harsh," he said. "But it is arguably just punishment under these facts."
U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill described Rodriguez as a "walking crime spree," carrying out an act with deadly potential. Rodriguez has a significant criminal history, prosecutors said, that includes several probation violations and affiliation with the Bulldog gang.
Authorities say such laser strikes can blind pilots and lead to crashes. In 2013, there were 3,960 reports of people shining lasers at aircraft over the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California prosecutes cases in 34 of the state's 58 counties, and it says the Fresno and Bakersfield airports experience the most laser cases.
Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the office, said the next longest sentence given to somebody for shining a laser at an aircraft in that region was three years and one month.
Rodriguez and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, were found guilty of charges in the case after a three-day trial in December. Coleman is scheduled to be sentenced in May.