FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A former flight attendant pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to starting a fire aboard an airplane more than three years ago and forcing an emergency landing in North Dakota.
Eder Rojas, 22, formerly of Woodbury, Minn., told authorities he used a lighter stashed in one of the overhead bins to ignite paper towels in the rear bathroom of the Compass Airlines flight from Minneapolis to Regina, Saskatchewan.
“He was mad at the airline for making him work the route he was on,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Shasky said during Monday’s hearing.
The flight took off from Minneapolis about 10:30 p.m. on May 7, 2008, with 72 passengers and four crew members. Before takeoff, Rojas had requested additional paper towels and tissue, Shasky said.
About 35 minutes into the flight, an indicator light alerted the captain there was smoke in the bathroom. Shasky said there were “flames shooting out” of a paper towel holder. Rojas helped put out the fire while the plane made a rapid descent into Fargo, the prosecutor said.
Prosecutors agreed to drop a charge of failure to appear in exchange for the guilty plea to the charge of setting fire aboard an aircraft. The failure to appear charge was filed after Rojas didn’t show up for trial in September 2008 and was on the run for nearly three years. He was arrested in his native Mexico in March and returned to North Dakota in August.
Rojas faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is set for Dec. 16.
Prosecutors have said that about five weeks before the Compass flight, Rojas was aboard another flight that was forced to make an emergency landing in Wisconsin because of a bathroom fire. Rojas helped put out the fire, as he did on Compass flight. No charges have been filed in the flight that landed in Wisconsin.
U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon declined to comment after Monday’s hearing.
Neil Fulton, federal public defender for the Dakotas, did not return a phone message.
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