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Riverview man accused of airplane threats under observation

Derek Stansberry is being held in Maine after his actions diverted his flight from Europe.

Family photo

Derek Stansberry is being held in Maine after his actions diverted his flight from Europe.

TAMPA — The father of the Riverview man charged with making threats about explosives on an Atlanta-bound plane said Wednesday he is concerned about his son's health.

The son, 26-year-old Derek Michael Stansberry, is under medical observation because he seemed disoriented, said Stansberry's father, Richard Stansberry. He said U.S. marshals updated him on his son's condition Wednesday morning.

Richard Stansberry said he isn't aware of any medications his son was taking, though the son told FBI agents he had taken the prescription sleeping aid Ambien prior to the threats.

Derek Stansberry, who served in the Air Force, has no Florida criminal record. He was in federal custody Wednesday in Bangor, Maine, where Delta flight 273 from Paris to Atlanta was diverted Tuesday. He awaits a first appearance in court, the Justice Department said.

Richard Stansberry said he hadn't spoken to his son, who faces up to 20 years in prison for interfering with flight crew members and five years for making false threats about an explosive on an aircraft.

The elder Stansberry said he has no explanation for his son's actions.

"All I am is a concerned father," he said. "I'm hoping it's something that can be explained logically because this is all a shock."

The FBI says in court documents that during the flight Derek Stansberry passed a note to a flight attendant stating he was not an American citizen, that his passports were fake and to "Please let my family know the truth."

The flight attendant gave the note to a federal air marshal, who detained Stansberry in the rear of the plane.

Stansberry told the marshal he had dynamite in the boots in his backpack and that a pressure switch would detonate them, according to the documents. He said he also had explosives in his laptop.

Air marshals put his boots and laptop in the back of the plane and surrounded them with seat cushions, pillows and blankets "to dampen the effects of any potential explosion," FBI Special Agent James McCarty wrote in the court affidavit.

The plane landed safely, and no explosives were found.

After he was taken to a holding area in the airport, Stansberry told FBI agents that he held high-level government security clearances and was in possession of classified information, the affidavit states. He also said he believed people on board were following him, ridiculing him and using interrogation techniques, though none of those people ever spoke to him.

The Air Force said Stansberry was an intelligence specialist who served four years, ending his Air Force career as a senior airman in 2009 at Hurlburt Field in the Florida Panhandle. Stansberry's father said his son had been working in Africa the past few months for a government-contracted defense company, but he wouldn't say what he did.

Stansberry told authorities he made the bomb claim to divert attention from the fact that he had classified information, the affidavit said. Agents wrote that Stansberry was responsive, but he spoke in military jargon and had trouble keeping events in chronological order.

Stansberry told agents he took one Ambien pill earlier that day, but a separate air marshal report said Stansberry told air marshals he had taken eight Ambien. He also said he had used Valium, an anti-anxiety drug, but not on this flight.

His father said U.S. marshals relayed on Wednesday that his son seemed quite exhausted.

"He probably hasn't seen a bed in over 20 hours," Richard Stansberry said. Stansberry wouldn't speculate about whether the son's tiredness had anything to do with the threats, but he said the behavior was very out of character.

"We hope he can come home soon so we can find out exactly what is going on," Stansberry said.

Ambien has been known to have unusual side effects. Though common side effects include drowsiness, dizziness and diarrhea, in rare cases it can induce amnesia, hallucinations and unnatural behaviors while asleep.

Last year, a man in Wisconsin froze to death after taking Ambien and sleepwalking barefoot in the snow. Others have been known to crash cars, cook meals and have conversations.

"It's very much person-to-person and not necessarily dependant on the dose or frequency of doses," said Dr. Daniel Buffington, a clinical pharmacologist with the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

Buffington said someone could experience strange adverse effects after just one pill, especially if that person has had alcohol or is under stress.

He said he has testified in dozens of cases where defendants took Ambien before committing crimes of which they have no memory.

"It is unfortunate, and it is defensible," he said he has testified.

Buffington has not been consulted in Stansberry's case.

Richard Stansberry said his son has retained an attorney in Bangor, but he has not discussed his son's case with her. Stansberry said he has heard that the lawyer would request a competency hearing.

Times news researcher John Martin and information from the Associated Press contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Second case with a Tampa Bay tie

This is the second Tampa Bay resident in two weeks whose security threat caused a flight to be diverted. Last week, Stanley Dwayne Sheffield, 46, of Largo caused a red-eye from Los Angeles to Tampa to be rerouted to Albuquerque after he tried to open a cabin door and sprayed water. Sheffield was tackled by passengers who included Tampa Bay Rays color commentator Kevin Kennedy.

Riverview man accused of airplane threats under observation 04/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 29, 2010 9:07am]

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