Investigation: Airplane sex assault reports on the rise

- Cayleigh Maloye, 24, was on a flight to visit family in North Carolina last December when she says an intoxicated man sitting next to her started touching her and tried to kiss her.

"He kept doing it," she recalled. "At one point he like brushed my entire leg like up to butt area and I was like, 'Dude this is not OK,'"

Maloye says she was "stuck in a metal tube with this guy for four hours."

"Grabbing my arm and grabbing my hand," she said. "I'm like squishing down into my chair like, 'This is my personal space. Can you not?' And he started reaching down and around and stuff and that was the point I was like, 'Get off!"

Maloye says she told a flight attendant but never reported the incident to authorities.

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of cases of reported sexual assaults occurring on airplanes mid-flight. 

According to national FBI numbers:

  • In FY 2014 there were 38 reports of sexual assaults
  • In FY 2015 there were 40 reports of sexual assaults 
  • In FY 2016 there were 57 reports of sexual assaults
  • In FY 2017 there were 63 reports of sexual assaults

In Charlotte:

  • In FY 2012 there were 2 reports of sexual assaults
  • In FY 2013-2015 there were 0 reports of sexual assaults
  • In FY 2016 there were 4 reports of sexual assaults
  • In FY 2017 there were 8 reports of sexual assaults 

"What is the FBI doing about this?," asked FOX 46 reporter Matt Grant.

"Any sexual abuse crime that occurs on an aircraft is a federal crime and the FBI will investigate it," said Supervisory Special Agent Dean Harp with the Charlotte FBI. 

Harp says the FBI works closely with CMPD, Customs and Border Patrol, Homeland Security and the airlines to investigate crimes.

The FBI takes sexual abuse on aircraft very serious," said Harp.

Any crime that occurs from the moment an airplane door closes to the time it opens after landing is handled by the FBI. 

This week, the FBI is distributing posters saying "Be Air Aware" to airports across the country. The fliers warn passengers that "sexual assault on an aircraft is a federal crime" and encourage victims to "report the incident to your flight crew and the FBI."

Last year, the FBI installed a full-time agent at Charlotte Douglas International Airport to quickly respond to potential crimes. 

FOX 46 wanted to know how many of these reported cases are prosecuted and, ultimately, lead to a conviction.

"We'd have to refer that to the United States Attorney's Office," said Harp. 

A FOX 46 investigation found the Department of Justice does not keep records on how many in-flight sexual assault cases are prosecuted. Instead, DOJ officials provided an anecdotal list, compiled from press releases and newspaper articles, of at least 16 cases in the past four years.

The DOJ says some investigations are ongoing and some cases cannot be prosecuted "due to insufficient evidence or inability to identify a perpetrator."

"We're not surprised by the reporting on sexual assaults," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union that represents 50,000 members. "We actually think it's under-reported."

"Our members tell us they are not aware of anything the airlines have done in the last 12 months on this issue," said Nelson. "Sixty-eight percent say that. And they also say if there are policies they don't know what they are."

A survey of flight attendants last year found one in five witnessed a sexual assault or received a complaint from a passenger, according to Nelson. How flight attendants should respond is often unclear and inconsistent among airlines, she said. 

"Less than half the time did law enforcement meet the flight," said Nelson.

"Many of the victims who experience [sexual assault]...are trying to make sense of what has happened to them, or dealing with teh embarrassment of what has happened," said Nelson. "And it makes it very to difficult to report unless we have clear guidelines."

Right now officials can't say whether the rise in reported sex assaults is due to the frequency of it happening or whether more victims are coming forward. 

One problem investigating complaints is some victims don't come forward because they are embarrassed, in a hurry to make a connecting flight or don't even realize they are a victim of sexual assault, according to the FBI. 

"When I got off the plane I was so shook up and angry," said Maloye. "All this stuff with Harvey Weinstein, all the #MeToo stuff going on. And I'm ike how is this guy, off the heels of that, feeling like it's remotely OK to be doing this so publicly?"

If you feel you are a victim, the FBI says you should:

  • Alert the flight crew
  • Remain calm
  • Take notes 
  • Identify witnesses who could support your case
  • Ask if a federal marshal or FBI agent is on board
  • Have law enforcement respond at the gate when landing

You can report sexual assaults that occurred on board an airplane at 1-800-CALL-FBI, at or at your local FBI office. 

Department of Justice Response

"The department doesn't track statistics on these prosecutions currently, so the examples...should no tbe considered an exhaustive list The reports took place nationwide among the 56 FBI divisions...There have been numerous prosecutions by the U.S. Attorneys in various districts, but these examples wouldn't necessarily account for all of them. Some investigations are ongoing, and some could not be prosecuted due to insufficient evidence or inability to identify a perpetrator. Others were prosecuted under appropriate state laws. The goal of the FBI's awareness campaign is for the public to quickly report incidents so prosecution can be considered. We want the public to be aware that it is a crime, that the FBI has the jurisdiction, and the incident needs to be immediately reported wherever possible so efforts can be made to identify the perpetrator, gather evidence and interview witnesses, and where appropriate to fully prosecute the crime." - Wyn Hornbuckle, DOJ Spokesperson 

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