The men were arrested and charged with the sexual assault of female passengers in incidents earlier this year aboard aircraft coming into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The FBI and U.S. Attorney say such behavior will not be tolerated.

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Two men have been charged with the sexual assault of young women passengers in separate incidents aboard aircraft coming into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, law-enforcement officials said Thursday. One was arrested Wednesday in Alaska and the second early Thursday morning in Los Angeles.

With reports of sexual assaults on aircraft increasing, “we want the public to know these assaults are federal crimes and will be investigated and prosecuted consistent with the law,” U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes said at a news conference in Seattle.

Hayes added that “the skies will be safer for all of us” if victims of such crimes report assaults to airline flight crews and to law enforcement.

How to handle sexual assault on a commercial flight

• Though most of the time it won’t happen, be aware of the possibility, and be watchful.

• You can minimize risk by booking an aisle seat. Most assaults happen in middle or window seats.

• If sending an unaccompanied minor on a flight, ask that they be booked in an aisle seat near a flight attendant station.

If it happens:

• Speak up loudly. Yell. Protest. Make sure others around you hear.

• Get up from the seat and tell the flight attendants.

• Ask the crew to notify the pilots and request that law enforcement meet the plane on landing.

• Call 911 upon landing to report the incident to police.

• Insist upon either moving or having the alleged offender move so that you are no longer seated together.

Source: FBI and Allison Dvaladze

“No one … should have to endure what we allege happened in these cases,” she said. “In this year of MeToo, if we all work together and call a crime a crime, the fact is we can make a difference.”

FBI data show that the number of cases opened to investigate sexual assault aboard airplanes has increased from about 40 per year nationally in 2014 and 2015 to about 60 per year in 2016 and 2017.

The FBI said it views these relatively low numbers as reflective of “an underreported crime category.”

Jay Tabb Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI Seattle office, said, “We hope this announcement of enforcement action shows this behavior is unacceptable, illegal and punishable. We also hope it might empower victims to come forward.”

Since January, the FBI’s Seattle Field Office has reviewed “close to 10 incidents of alleged sexual assault on aircraft,” said FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich.

“We continue to collect information to determine if there is sufficient evidence to develop them into full investigations that could be considered for prosecution,” she said. “Our commitment is reflected in the two cases discussed today.”

Two women’s cases

Babak Rezapour, 41, of Van Nuys, California, appeared in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. He was released on $40,000 bond and ordered to appear in U.S. District Court in Seattle no later than Sept. 14.

Nicholas Matthew Stevens, 37, of Anchorage, will appear in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Friday and will also be ordered to appear in court in Seattle.

According to the charges, on a 10-hour, nighttime flight aboard a Norwegian Airlines Boeing 787 from London’s Gatwick Airport to Seattle on Jan. 10, Rezapour was sitting in a middle row of three seats with an empty seat between him and a 22-year-old woman.

The woman had taken a prescribed anti-anxiety medication and drunk a glass of wine. She accepted a second glass of wine bought for her by Rezapour, after which she became unusually sleepy.

The woman alleges that she awoke at several points during the flight to find Rezapour sexually assaulting her, squeezing her breast beneath her bra and touching her vagina, his actions hidden beneath a jacket.

Sexual Assault Hotline

If you have experienced sexual assault and need support, or if you would like more information about sexual violence, call King County Sexual Assault Resource Center’s 24-hour Resource Line at 888.99.VOICE or visit www.kcsarc.org/gethelpRAINN operates a free and confidential hotline for sexual assault survivors at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673). There is also an online chat option here.  

The woman fled to the back of the plane and reported the assault to flight attendants, who reseated her in the front of the aircraft.

Two passengers in nearby seats reported seeing Rezapour lying across the seats unusually close to the victim.

When law enforcement met the plane upon landing, Rezapour denied engaging in any unwanted physical contact. However, DNA testing of the woman’s clothing found his DNA in the inside front of the woman’s underwear, prosecutors said.

Stevens is charged with sexually assaulting a woman, also 22, on an Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage to Seattle on March 8.

According to the charges, the woman was in a window seat as Stevens, who was drinking, moved from the aisle to sit beside her, talking loudly and aggressively pushing his attention upon her.

She told police she became scared when he announced that he loved killing animals and then said, “Who would I have to kill to get a girl like you?”

During the flight, the woman alleges, Stevens grabbed at her breast repeatedly and stroked her thighs, despite her pushing him away and telling him to stop.

Two fellow passengers reported seeing Stevens touching the woman. Both said that upon disembarking, the woman was “visibly shaking and appeared upset, scared and uncomfortable” and they encouraged her to report the behavior.

When Stevens was located by Port of Seattle police officers inside the airport, he told them he had been touching the woman and that she was touching him.

If convicted, both men face a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

“MeToo” shifts the culture

Both Hayes and Tabb speculated that the increase in the number of FBI cases is due to more women coming forward to report assaults, rather than any uptick in occurrence of the crimes.

Last year, the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault of airplane passengers received considerable attention nationally and locally.

In November, Silicon Valley executive Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, raised a furor about having to endure a barrage of sexually explicit and lewd comments from a male passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Mazatlán, Mexico.

That story spurred Mike Adams, who had just retired as the FBI special agent at Sea-Tac Airport in December, to tell The Seattle Times that in the past, many sexual-assault cases have not been prosecuted due to the difficulty of gathering evidence, as women were reluctant to report abuse and assaults.

But American women are increasingly casting aside their hesitance to report sexual abuse.

Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, said at Thursday’s news conference that “in the last eight, nine months since MeToo started, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of victims coming forward at all levels, a 20 percent increase year on year.”

“People up until now have been reluctant to come forward,” Stone said. “This is a real sea change.”

One case Adams dealt with was that of Allison Dvaladze, who was sexually assaulted aboard a Delta Air Lines flight from Seattle to Amsterdam in 2016.

Because of her frustration that the perpetrator was not called to account, Dvaladze mounted a one-woman campaign to draw attention to the issue and this year sued Delta over what she described as its lack of response to the incident.

In June, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., organized a letter signed by more than 20 fellow senators urging Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to establish a task force to address sexual assault and harassment on airlines.

Before any potential legislative action that might emerge from that, Deputy Chief Mike Villa of the Port of Seattle Police on Thursday urged victims of such assaults to report incidents first to the flight crew and then to law enforcement by calling 911 upon landing.