Friends baffled by Plant High grad's arrest in melee aboard China flight

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TAMPA — Nick Rich stopped by Joe Hudek's house last week to say hello and give him some money he owed him. It was a good time to repay his buddy, who was about to embark on a trip to China.

Hudek was excited about the journey and seemed his mild-mannered self, Rich said.

The next day, Rich awoke from a nap to find his phone "blowing up" with calls and texts from alarmed and baffled friends. Several sent links to news stories chronicling the arrest of a man he couldn't imagine was the same Joe Hudek he knew.

According to authorities, the 23-year-old Plant High School graduate tried to open an exit door on an airborne Boeing 767 heading from Seattle to Beijing, triggering a brawl with flight attendants and passengers who used wine bottles and zip ties to subdue him. The pilot called in the emergency and returned to Seattle.

"It's so out of character," Rich, who has been friends with Hudek since elementary school, said in an interview Monday. "Everyone who knows him knows something went wrong here and they need to get to the bottom of it."

The U.S. Attorney's Office charged Hudek with interfering with a flight crew. Records show he was being held Monday at federal detention center in Seattle. He did not speak during a court appearance Friday, and his attorney did not return a call from the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

Friends reached by the Times said they are stunned by the allegations against a man they call "JoJo" and describe as kind, generous and laid-back.

"I know physically that was JoJo's body, but we're all just shocked because that's not the JoJo anyone knows," said Tara McGowan, who saw the news in her Facebook feed and fought back tears as she spoke to a reporter Monday. "He would never, ever hurt someone."

Hudek grew up in Tampa, the product of a tight-knit, supportive family, Rich said. The nephew of former Major League Baseball pitcher John Hudek, Joe Hudek played football for two years at Plant and baseball for four. After graduating in 2012, Hudek attended Hillsborough Community College for two years and then enrolled at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

That's where McGowan, who attended Plant with Hudek, became closer to him because he lived with her boyfriend.

"I always joked he was my second boyfriend because he would do anything for me," she said. "He is just the most gentle, loving, selfless person you could ever meet."

Hudek moved back to Tampa to live with his parents and has been taking online FSU courses while working for his father, a construction subcontractor, Rich said. He also had a part-time job working at a boat yard, a good gig for a guy who loves to spend time on the water, Rich said.

His mother, Linda Hudek, works for Delta, and Joe Hudek made the most of the airline's dependent pass program that allows relatives to fly for free.

Hudek was reportedly flying with such a pass to Beijing, where Rich said he was planning to visit a friend from FSU. Hudek was among more than 200 people on board when the plane took off about 5 p.m. from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, according to a U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit.

Hudek had ordered a single beer before takeoff, and appeared sober, an FBI agent wrote in the affidavit. The Boeing 767 had been flying about an hour — crossing over Vancouver Island — when Hudek rose from his first-class seat and walked into the bathroom. He was inside about two minutes, according to the affidavit. Then he "lunged toward the forward right exit door of the aircraft, grabbed the handle" and tried to pull it open, the agent wrote.

During a struggle, Hudek punched and knocked down a flight attendant and punched and struck with a wine bottle a passenger who tried to help, the complaint states.

A flight attendant picked up a wine bottle, then a second one, and smashed each over Hudek's head. He shouted, "'Do you know who I am?' or something to that extent,'' the agent wrote. He kept fighting even after other passengers joined the fray and was able to lift the handle about halfway up before he was eventually subdued.

One flight attendant and a male passenger were taken to a medical center, where they were treated for severe facial injuries.

Passengers likely never came close to catastrophe. At that point in the flight, the aircraft would have reached a cruising altitude of 30,000 to 35,000 feet, said Ken Byrnes, assistant dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Daytona Beach campus.

Because of the difference in air pressure between the exterior of the plane and the cabin, "You'd have to have superhuman strength to get the door open at that altitude," Byrne said.

Hudek has been arrested twice in Florida, the first time in 2008 on a charges of criminal mischief and trespassing on school grounds. In 2012, at 18, he was charged in Pinellas County with child abuse battery and illegally possessing alcohol. Those charges were dropped.

Rich said his friend has gotten into some minor scrapes over the years, but nothing like this, and never unprovoked.

"He's really such a nice kid he he's never been the type to start something," Rich said.

Rich said Hudek does not have a history of mental health issues, calling him a "clear-headed guy." He doesn't believe his friend would take drugs to make him behave that way.

"Especially if he's flying for free," Rich said. "He'd never purposely do anything to impact his mom's career and that benefit."

Linda Hudek and other family members could not be reached Monday.

"They're a really strong family and they're doing the best they can," McGowan said.

Senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from the Seattle Times. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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