1. News

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

Joe Hudek IV was arrested Thursday after authorities say he tried to open an exit door on an airborne Boeing 767 then got into a brawl with flight attendants and passengers. Friends of the Plant High School graduate say they are baffled by the allegations. [Facebook]
Published Jul. 10, 2017

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 or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.


  1. FILE  - In this Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, a man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in Portland, Maine. Walmart says it will stop selling electronic cigarettes at its namesake stores and Sam's Clubs following a string of illnesses and deaths related to vaping.  The nation's largest retailer said Friday, Sept. 20 that it will complete its exit from e-cigarettes after selling through current inventory. It cited growing federal, state and local regulatory complexity regarding vaping products. ROBERT F. BUKATY  |  AP
    The nation’s largest retailer said Friday that it will complete its exit from e-cigarettes after selling through current inventory.
  2. The city is accepting applications for its Commercial Revitalization Program. The city has allocated $175,000 for the program this year.
  3. Plans for the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District Board of Commissioners referendum March 12 call for a $100 increase in the annual assessment for single-family units. Tom Germond
    The winner will fill the seat of a board member who moved.
  4. The Florida Association of Museums has named St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman its Outstanding Public Official for 2019.
    The organization recognizes those who contribute to the museum profession.
  5. Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, urges the Florida Board of Education to hold schools accountable for teaching the Holocaust and African-American history, as required by lawmakers in 1994. The board was considering a rule on the matter at its Sept. 20, 2019, meeting in Jacksonville. The Florida Channel
    School districts will have to report how they are providing the instruction required in Florida law.
  6. The Walmart supercenter at 990 Missouri Ave. faced fines in December for these storage containers in the parking lot. City officials are debating whether to make a short-term arrangement with the city two’s Largo stores this year so they can store their holiday inventory. City of Largo
    In the end, city commissioners say yes, with some reservations.
  7. A man holds an inflatable alien at an entrance to the Nevada Test and Training Range near Area 51 Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, near Rachel, Nev. People gathered at the gate inspired by the "Storm Area 51" internet hoax. JOHN LOCHER  |  AP
    A man who was urinating near the gate was arrested and a woman was detained for an undisclosed reason, Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee said.
  8. Lifeguards rescue children from a minivan that their mother drove into the Atlantic on Tuesday in Daytona Beach. Ebony Wilkerson, 31, inset, a pregnant South Carolina woman who drove a minivan carrying her three young children into the ocean surf off Florida had talked about demons before leaving the house, according to a sister who worriedly called police, officials said during a news conference Wednesday.
    Volusia County Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano on Thursday allowed 38-year-old Ebony Wilkerson to leave Daytona Beach.
  9. The Pasco County school district would rezone the Seven Oaks subdivision from the Wiregrass Ranch High feeder pattern to the Cypress Creek High feeder pattern, beginning in the 2020-21 school year. Pasco County school district
    The Seven Oaks subdivision is the primary target for rezoning.
  10. Commander John Christensen of the cutter Seneca says the “downrange counter-drug operations are a vital component to the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security’s mission and our national security.” Photo from video/WPLG Local 10
    The crews patrolling in the Eastern Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Mexico and Central and South American made dozens of interdictions.