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Ruskin mailman who flew gyrocopter into Capitol released from jail, headed back to Florida soon

Doug Hughes and his gyrocopter fly Wednesday near the Washington Monument en route to the Capitol.
Published Apr. 17, 2015

WASHINGTON — He made the front pages of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today for flying through protected airspace and plopping his gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. He captured air time on an alphabet of news channels for an act of civil disobedience to spotlight campaign finance reform.

And when Doug Hughes, a mail carrier from Ruskin, emerged in court after 24 hours in custody, he put speakerphones in his failing ears and faced the judge, hoping for the best.

"The last thing they're going to do is give me the medal of honor," he had joked before the flight. "I am tweaking the dragon's tail as hard as I can. I'm going after them very directly and very confrontationally, and I don't expect they are passively going to accept it."

Prosecutors charged Hughes, 61, with knowingly operating an unlicensed aircraft and violating national defense airspace, which carry a maximum penalty of three years and one year in prison respectively, plus possible additional fines.

But the man some politicians and news commentators called a threat to national security was released on his own recognizance by Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson, who imposed some conditions.

Hughes will be placed on home detention in Florida, where he will be monitored by GPS. He is barred from returning to the District of Columbia except for court appearances and meetings with his attorney. Any time that he is in the District of Columbia, Hughes must stay away from the Capitol, White House and nearby areas. He has to surrender an expired passport.

One more thing: "We ask that Mr. Hughes not operate any flying vehicles," the prosecutor said.

The judge agreed. Hughes agreed. The judge set a preliminary hearing for May 8.

Alena Hughes, the pilot's wife, spoke briefly to him by phone Thursday, Ruskin attorney Paul Carr said.

"She's extremely happy he's safe," Carr said.

The attorney said Secret Service agents will interview Mrs. Hughes as soon as today. He called the agency after the woman walked unannounced into his office seeking legal guidance.

"I didn't want anybody to think she had anything to do with it or that she did anything to expose her to any criminal liability," Carr said. "She had nothing to do with it."

He said Doug Hughes expected to stay overnight in Washington with a relative and was arranging to return home. Maybe by rail, the attorney said.

"He's had enough of flying, I think," Carr said.

While Hughes appeared in court, security officials in Washington scrambled to explain how an amateur pilot from Florida steered a small aircraft unabated into the heart of the nation's capital.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday that the gyrocopter — little more than a bicycle with a propeller and helicopter blades — "literally flew in under the radar."

The North American Aerospace Defense Command did not know about Hughes' flight until he touched down on the West Lawn, a spokesman said. NORAD and the Federal Aviation Administration both launched investigations into the incident.

A NORAD spokesman told the Associated Press that Hughes' stunt showed it is difficult to detect low and slow aircraft around the capital, an old problem for security specialists.

Johnson demurred when asked if Hughes' landing would force a change in policy.

"I want to know all the facts before I reach an assessment of what can and should be done about gyrocopters in the future," he said.

In October 2013, the Secret Service learned about Hughes' plan and interviewed him in Ruskin, according to a statement released Wednesday. After a "complete and thorough investigation," they passed the information on to Capitol Police, the Secret Service said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa said there was no open criminal investigation of Hughes prior to his arrest in Washington. A Capitol Police spokesman said Thursday that the agency had no update regarding its response to the incident.

Lawmakers of both parties expressed disbelief that none of the multiple security agencies tasked with protecting Washington became aware of Hughes' flight in time to stop it.

"Suppose there was a bomb or an explosive device on that air vehicle?" said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That could have been a major catastrophe."

Hughes embarked on his flight from Gettysburg, Pa., knowing he could be shot down or arrested, but his intention was to raise awareness around the issue of campaign finance, not national security.

Weeks before taking flight, he told a Times reporter that greed was corrupting America's democratic system. Packed next to Hughes in the gyrocopter were 535 letters, one for each member of Congress, laying out his views. "As I see it, campaign finance reform is the cornerstone of building an honest Congress," he wrote. "Erect a wall of separation between our elected officials and big money. "

While Hughes was in the air Wednesday, a Times reporter called the Secret Service to ask if the agency was aware that a man who identified himself as a protester from Tampa Bay wanted to land a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn.

The Secret Service released a new statement Thursday saying, in part, that the Times reporter did not alert the agency that Hughes was "in the process of" flying the gyrocopter at the time of the interview.

To read the Secret Service's statement and the response from the Times, go to http://tbtim.es/gsv .

Hughes never got to deliver his letters. Instead, armed police arrested him as soon as he touched ground. Dogs and bomb technicians combed through the gyrocopter, finding no explosives.

From Twitter to CNN, people debated Hughes' intent and impact. They wondered if he was crazy. They wondered how he pulled it off. And in some cases, they endorsed his message on campaign finance, calling him brave, a true patriot.

Save for some media trucks idling in the early morning sun, there was no sign of this commotion outside Hughes' home on Pleasant View Avenue in Ruskin on Thursday. Neighbors passed by looking bewildered; a man mowed his lawn next door.

In nearby Apollo Beach, Hughes' friend, co-worker and political confidante Mike Shanahan said he had been visited by Secret Service agents and postal inspectors Wednesday.

"They basically asked the same thing the media was asking," Shanahan, 65, said. Who, exactly, is Doug Hughes and what was he thinking?

It was not the first time Shanahan had spoken to federal agents. About a year ago, he said, not long after Hughes told him of the gyrocopter plan, an agent interviewed him in Florida.

Shanahan said Hughes called him Wednesday before he took off, which prompted Shanahan to call the same Secret Service agent he spoke with a year earlier. Shanahan said he left a message but received no reply.

Hours later, Hughes was in a Washington cellblock.

If Hughes' protest galvanizes support for campaign finance reform, Shanahan said, it might have been worth it.

"The only thing we can do is see what happens," Shanahan said. "It's kind of like we're going to have to let history determine whether this was a good or a bad thing."

Times staff writer Katie Mettler and Chelsea Tatham and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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