ST. LOUIS • Police Officers Doug Reinholz and Dan Cunningham, both pilots with Metro Air Support, were in the midst of a typical busy night last year patrolling the skies above the St. Louis area.
As Reinholz flew through the night sky on April 27, 2010, a green laser beam cut through the air, tracking the chopper. Then it hit the craft's cockpit and the light scattered, temporarily blinding Reinholz, like a camera flash in a dark room.
Reinholz was able to turn away, and the copter, 1,000 feet in the air, wasn't in any immediate danger. But the laser continued to try to track the helicopter, making it easy for the officers to find the source.
They shined their own beam — a spotlight — on a 24-year-old O'Fallon, Mo., man standing in the street in front of his house. The man, Justin Stouder, was arrested by officers on the ground, jailed and threatened with a felony charge.
On Monday morning, Stouder was at FBI headquarters in St. Louis, with a public apology to Reinholz and a warning to others who might point a laser at an aircraft: "It could cause harm, damage and possible death."
It's an encounter that federal authorities say is becoming too common. And they want a new federal law that would make the use of a laser against an aircraft its own crime.
The Federal Aviation Administration counted more than 2,800 such incidents nationwide in 2010, double those of the previous year and the highest since it started keeping track in 2005. The agency reported 17 incidents near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport last year, and three near Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield.
Last month, the FAA announced that people who misuse lasers could be subject to a civil fine of up to $11,000.
Officials, crediting the skills of pilots, say they are not yet aware of any crashes caused by lasers.
'NOT A HARMLESS PRANK'
Lasers can range from cheap, low-power models used to entertain the family cat, to stronger units used in astronomy or laser shows, to a $300 model that can cause permanent blindness and even start fires. They are typically available online or in retail stores. The strongest can reach thousands of feet into the air.
It's "not a harmless prank," said Dennis Baker, head of the local office of the FBI.
The FBI is one of a dozen local, state and federal agencies in the St. Louis Laser Strike Working Group, which held a news conference Monday to warn of the dangers of pointing lasers at planes and helicopters.
Baker, of the FBI, said he suspected that most laser incidents were not malicious and were born of curiosity.
"They really don't understand the damage it can cause," he said.
That was the case with Strouder, who was never formally charged but spent the last year in a probationary period called pretrial diversion. He kept out of trouble, regularly reported to authorities and was subject to random checks by court staff.
The laser strike itself hit the news last year, but Stouder had never been identified publicly. Stouder , now 26, a minister-in-training, said he wanted to help spread the word about lasers.
Stouder, who now lives in Hazelwood, said he was simply testing the laser, which belonged to the uncle of a friend who was with him that night. He was targeting a distant tower when the helicopter flew into his field of view.
Stouder said that he didn't know that Reinholz, a St. Louis police officer, and Cunningham, a St. Louis County officer, were in a police copter, and that he was not aware of the consequences until he watched a video of another laser strike.
"I had no idea it illuminated the whole cockpit and blinded everybody inside," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ray Meyer said Stouder could have faced a felony charge of interference with a flight crew, or interference with flight operations, but his office decided that Stouder's actions were not malicious. Stouder also cooperated with investigators.
Some cities and states have enacted laws prohibiting laser use against aircraft. A bill is working its way through Congress that would make the use of a laser against a plane its own federal crime, a move officials hope will help avoid any legal ambiguity and beef up enforcement.
Joel Currier and Ken Leiser of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.