BANGOR, Maine — A former Air Force intelligence specialist who claimed to have explosives aboard a trans-Atlantic flight suffered from a brief psychotic break caused by a lack of sleep, dehydration, stress and body-building substances, and is free to resume his life because he’s not a threat, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The judge found Derek Stansberry, 27, of Riverview, Fla., not guilty by reason of insanity on charges stemming from his actions aboard the April 27, 2010, Paris-to-Atlanta flight that was forced to land at Bangor International Airport.
“It’s something that no one expected to happen [and] most importantly that no one expects will happen again,” defense lawyer Walter McKee of Augusta said after the hearing in federal court.
Delta Air Lines Flight 273 was diverted after Stansberry gave a rambling note to a flight attendant and then told federal air marshals he had dynamite.
After the Airbus A330 landed in Bangor, Stansberry told FBI agents that he made up the story to divert attention from classified information he claimed to possess. At the time, he was returning home from the African nation of Burkina Faso, where he had been working for a defense contractor.
Stansberry was charged with interfering with a flight crew, and conveying false information and making threats.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock ruled that sleep deprivation, lack of food, stress, dehydration and body-building supplements, which were not identified in court, contributed to Stansberry’s psychotic break, which lasted 72 hours. Before the flight, Stansberry had worked 24-26 hours straight and did not sleep on his flight from Africa to Paris, his lawyer said.
It was a rare case in which four psychiatrists and psychologists who examined Stansberry, along with the prosecution and defense, all were in agreement on his insanity defense.
“While the charges against Mr. Stansberry were serious, as was his conduct aboard the aircraft, the best available medical and psychological evidence concerning his mental state during the incident supported the court’s verdict,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Lowell said in an email after the hearing. “Our office kept in close contact with the victim airline during these proceedings, apprising them of developments and seeking their input. Our office will continue to closely review all allegations involving inappropriate or threatening behavior aboard future flights, and will vigorously pursue criminal charges where appropriate.”
Because of the judge’s verdict and his agreement that Stansberry no longer needs treatment or poses a threat, Stansberry was allowed to return to Florida with no restrictions. He and his fiancee, Jillian Krause, left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.
Inside the courtroom, Stansberry, who was dressed in a light gray suit and blue dress shirt and tie, answered the judge’s questions clearly and concisely. Before the proceeding Tuesday, Woodcock found Stansberry competent to stand trial. Three days after the plane was diverted, a Bangor psychologist found he was not competent.
Stansberry has been on unpaid leave from his job with a Florida defense firm since his arrest, McKee said after the jury-waived trial ended. Stansberry has been attending college in Florida, where he is a straight-A student.
The defense lawyer said he did not know where or what Stansberry was studying.
McKee said last year that Stansberry had taken the sleep aid Ambien, which contributed to the episode. But his use of the prescription drug was not among the facts stipulated by the defense and prosecution or outlined by Woodcock at Tuesday’s trial.
Nonetheless, there was little doubt in McKee’s mind that Ambien played a role. Stansberry told investigators he had taken it, but it’s unclear how many pills he ingested.
“There are a number of different case studies that have addressed particular odd effects of Ambien in people that have ingested it, especially on flights in particular, who’ve exhibited odd symptoms,” McKee told reporters after the hearing. “This was something that happened just like that. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
Stansberry’s problems began when a flight attendant had trouble understanding him, so she asked him to write down what he was trying to say, according to court documents. Writing on a napkin, Stansberry produced a note filled with military jargon and acronyms in which he declared, among other things, that he was not a U.S. citizen, that his passport was a fake and that he had illegally visited Burkina Faso.
The flight attendant alerted air marshals, who questioned him. Asked if he had explosives, Stansberry described dynamite with a pressure switch in his bag. He later said there were explosives in his laptop computer as well.
No explosives were found after the jetliner landed.
By the time he was interviewed by FBI agents in Bangor, Stansberry said there were no explosives. He said he had made up the story because he possessed two classified photos on his laptop computer and wanted to deflect attention. He also said he had been followed from Africa and that suspicious passengers had begun conducting a “round robin” interrogation of him.
His behavior befuddled those who were closest to him.
His father, Richard Stansberry, described him as “squeaky clean.”
Before leaving the Air Force last year, Stansberry held a top security clearance while working for the 4th Special Operations Squadron known as the “Ghostriders” at Hurlburt Field, Fla., the Air Force said.
McKee said Tuesday that Stansberry was in the top of his class in the Air Force, and that he’s now a straight-A student as he attends college classes in Florida.
“There’s no question that he’s a super squared-away guy,” McKee said. “There’s no question that he’s going to do great things.”
McKee and Lowell agreed after Tuesday’s sentencing that Stansberry’s case was unique and it was unlikely another case involving similar charges would be resolved the same way.
If he had been found guilty, Stansberry would have faced up to 20 years in prison on the interference charge and up to five years in prison on the false information and threats charge.