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FBI goes to movies with reward program targeting use of laser pointers to distract airplanes

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ST. LOUIS - Silence your cellphone. Save the movie commentary for later. And if you know someone who aims a laser pointer at an airplane, give us a call.

A new FBI campaign unveiled Tuesday will place public safety messages during movie previews and is offering rewards of $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of anyone who threatens aircraft in a laser attack.

The effort builds on a pilot program launched in February in a dozen cities, including Chicago, Houston, New York, Phoenix and Washington.

For the next 90 days, the bureau's 56 field offices are offering the rewards.

Federal officials said the deliberate targeting of planes by people with handheld lasers has increased significantly in recent years. In 2005, when the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration began tracking such crimes, fewer than 300 laser attacks occurred. By last year, that number had increased to nearly 4,000, according to the FAA.

"It's usually young people horsing around," said Edward Reinhold, acting special agent in charge of the FBI's St. Louis office. "They're just unaware of (the dangers)."

In the Midwest, the campaign will be bolstered by messages shown during movie previews at Wehrenberg Theatres, which owns theatres in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri. A company executive said Tuesday that the chain is working with the National Association of Theatre Owners to possibly expand the announcements beyond its markets.

"Here's a pointer," the public service announcement reads. "Aiming a laser at an aircraft is a federal crime."

Sgt. Dan Cunningham, a helicopter pilot with the St. Louis County Police Department, said he's been "lased" numerous times in recent years by powerful beams that can be seen from nearly 1 mile away.

"I don't know that anybody realizes how much of an effect it has on an aircraft," he said. "It completely blinds you."

In California, a 26-year-old man was convicted in March of shining a laser pointer at a Fresno police helicopter and a hospital helicopter in the Central Valley. A federal judge sentenced Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, of Clovis, to 14 years in prison.

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Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier

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