It may have seemed like just a harmless stunt.
But pointing a green laser at both a FedEx airliner and the Erie County Sheriff's helicopter several times Thursday night has led to felony criminal charges against three men, and a strong rebuke from a group of top local officials Friday.
The pilot of the sheriff's Air One helicopter, Capt. Kevin Caffery, cited the risks people take if they point a laser into a pilot's eyes.
"There's a good chance you're going to wind up in jail," he said following a Friday afternoon news conference. "At the worst, you could bring down an aircraft and kill a lot of people."
Caffery was joined Friday near Erie Basin Marina by Mayor Byron W. Brown, Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard. Those officials praised the efforts that led to the arrest of three men.
"Due to the collaboration and excellent police work, we were able to apprehend three individuals on the ground in the Kaisertown area of the city," Brown told reporters. "This is a strong partnership, a partnership that already is paying dividends."
Timothy J. Voigt, 42, his son, Eric Voigt, 20, both of Griswold Street, and Bradley J. Campbell, 28, of Barnard Street, all face multiple counts of felony reckless endangerment.
The green laser first was pointed at a FedEx plane at about 8:45 p.m. Thursday. Those pilots contacted air traffic controllers, who alerted Buffalo police. Then, as the sheriff's Air One helicopter searched the Kaisertown neighborhood, it was "hit" six times by the laser.
Caffery compared the laser light to a lightning strike, saying it lit up the entire aircraft. A direct hit into your eyes can be blinding, he and others pointed out.
"It was a slight disorientation and really a burning sensation in your eyes," Caffery said. "I looked away and turned the aircraft away from it."
Co-pilot Art Litzinger then used an infrared camera system to pinpoint the laser's location and help Buffalo police make the arrests.
Howard called the laser pointing into pilots' eyes "extremely dangerous," citing studies that have been done for about the last 10 years.
"This wasn't just a playful stunt, [even though] that may have been on the minds of the individuals," he said. "Especially during takeoffs and landings, this could have caused a plane to crash."
Thursday night's incidents forced authorities to close a runway at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, because the sheriff's helicopter was forced to fly into otherwise restricted airspace.
Law enforcement officials cited possible federal charges in this case.
"Right now, this crime is being reviewed by the FAA and the FBI," Gipson said.
It happened to Caffery again Friday night. About 8 p.m., Caffery's helicopter was targeted by a laser beam while in flight. However, no one was arrested in this case.
Authorities believe the laser light was aimed from the vicinity of Bryant Street and Norwood Avenue. However, Buffalo police came up empty when they investigated, according to Michael J. DeGeorge, Buffalo police spokesman.
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