Man accused of aiming laser at Las Vegas police helicopter has history of previous strikes

As it turns out, James Zipf is no stranger to pointing lasers at police helicopters.

The 30-year-old Henderson man charged with aiming a powerful blue laser at Las Vegas police helicopters was convicted in 2011 of doing the same thing to Phoenix police helicopters, a federal prosecutor said in court Thursday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Yang said a local Phoenix judge placed Zipf on probation and ordered him to perform community service, but Zipf resumed the pattern of behavior, again with a blue laser, after he moved to the Las Vegas area.

In one of the half-dozen laser strikes against Las Vegas police, which are alleged to have occurred between Jan. 31 and Feb. 12, the pilot became so disoriented that he had to land the aircraft and end his shift, Yang said.

The prosecutor disclosed the new information when asking U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Koppe to keep Zipf behind bars while he faces six felony counts of aiming a laser pointer at Las Vegas police helicopters.

Defense lawyer Phil Brown asked Koppe to place his client in the custody of his wife’s parents, saying Zipf is not a flight risk.

Zipf, an information technology expert who has two young children, pleaded not guilty to the charges.

A dozen family members and friends were in court Tuesday to support him.

Koppe, who voiced concern about drug use by Zipf, told the lawyers she needed more information before deciding whether to release him, and she continued the detention hearing until Friday.

Zipf was indicted by a Las Vegas federal grand jury on Tuesday and later arrested by FBI agents after he failed to turn himself in at an agreed-upon time.

The charges are part of a federal statute enacted by Congress in 2012 and come amid a national campaign by the FBI to curb the rising number of laser strikes on aircraft.

Since at least 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration has ranked Las Vegas among the top 10 in the nation of cities where pilots are reporting laser strikes, according to Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the agency’s Pacific Division. There were 94 reports in 2013, ranking Las Vegas 6th.

In 2013, according to the FBI, 3,960 laser strikes were reported in the country, an average of 11 strikes a day.

Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said that amounts to a 1,100 percent increase since the FAA began tracking laser strikes in the skies in 2005.

“We have partnered with our local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to catch individuals who are engaging in this dangerous behavior which can disorient and temporarily blind a pilot,” Bogden said.

Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, said most of the strikes occur when the aircraft is closer to the ground during a critical landing or takeoff.

“Pilots are very busy during these times,” he said. “The last thing they need when doing safety checks is the added distraction of having this beam come out of nowhere and intrude upon the flight deck.”

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