ATLANTA - A man pleaded guilty to a charge of simple assault Wednesday for slapping a crying toddler on an Atlanta-bound flight.
Joe Rickey Hundley entered the guilty plea before Magistrate Judge Alan Baverman after reaching a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. His trial had been set to start Thursday morning.
Hundley used a racial slur to refer to the 19-month-old boy and then hit him under the right eye as the flight from Minneapolis began its descent to the Atlanta airport, authorities have said.
The misdemeanour simple assault charge carries a possible prison sentence of up to a year and a fine of up to $100,000. Prosecutors have recommended a sentence of six months in prison, but Hundley reserved his right to argue for a lower sentence. Prosecutors are not recommending any specific fine. Hundley has agreed to pay any restitution ordered by the court.
The judge is not required to follow the recommendations in the plea agreement when he sentences Hundley at a hearing set for Jan. 6.
The agreement also requires Hundley to enter a drug or alcohol treatment program and attend anger management classes. He told the judge he has been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings almost daily since March and has already enrolled in an anger management class.
Hundley, who lived in Idaho at the time, was on a Delta flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta on Feb. 8 and was seated in a window seat next to Jessica Bennett, who was sitting in the aisle seat and had her 19-month-old son on her lap, according to court filings.
At the beginning of the flight, Hundley pressed the call button and asked a flight attendant about the airline's policy regarding "lap children," prosecutor Suzette Smikle said. The way he asked the question made it clear he was unhappy about the child's presence, Smikle said. As a result, Bennett decided to spend most of the flight in the rear galley area with her son, returning to her seat shortly before landing, Smikle said.
As the plane descended into Atlanta, the child started crying. Hundley leaned over to Bennett and "told her to shut that (N-word) baby up," according to a sworn statement from an FBI agent who investigated the incident. Bennett asked Hundley what he had said, and he leaned in with his face up next to hers and said it again, Smikle said.
Hundley then slapped the child in the face, leaving a scratch below his right eye, the FBI agent's statement says.
Hundley's only son was in a coma in Atlanta following an insulin overdose that was the result of a suspected suicide attempt, his lawyer Marcia Shein told reporters after the Wednesday hearing. He spent the day before talking to his ex-wife and doctors after his son was declared brain dead and booked a last-minute flight to Atlanta so he and his ex-wife could take their son off life support, Shein said.
"He was so distressed that night," Shein said. "I think the real stress on his nerve endings was that he'd been up for 24 hours before, and his son was going to die."
Hundley simply snapped from the pressure, Shein said.
"He didn't mean to hurt J.B., he really didn't," she said, referring to the child.
Hundley was president of an aerospace company in Hayden, Idaho, but lost his job following enormous media coverage of the in-flight incident, his defence lawyers said in a court filing. Hundley has since moved to Leland, N.C., according to a court filing. He has only been able to find sporadic, part-time work since then, he told the judge.
Bennett, who lives in Minneapolis, told a television station there that her son was traumatized and had become "apprehensive to strangers" since the flight. Hundley became increasingly obnoxious and appeared intoxicated during the flight and complained that her son was too big to sit on her lap, she said.
"He reeked of alcohol," Bennett told KARE-TV in mid-February. "He was belligerent, and I was uncomfortable."
Lawyers for Hundley had said in court filings that the amount of media coverage his case received was highly unusual for a misdemeanour charge and added that "it is impossible to avoid the reality that the national media has painted Mr. Hundley as a villain."