By Jonathan Kaminsky
(Reuters) - An off-duty Delta Airlines pilot has been charged with fondling a 14-year-old girl seated next to him on a Salt Lake City-bound flight, but he contends he was sleeping at the time, authorities said on Wednesday.
Michael Pascal, 45, was returning to his home in Utah on Saturday after piloting an early-morning flight from Salt Lake City to Detroit when the alleged incident occurred.
Pascal plans to plead not guilty to a federal charge of abusive sexual contact with a minor, said his lawyer, Rhome Zabriskie. The pilot's initial court appearance is scheduled for Thursday in federal court in Salt Lake City.
If convicted, Pascal faces a maximum of two years in federal prison, said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City-based U.S. Attorney's Office.
The girl, identified in court papers as R.S., was flying as an unaccompanied minor when she was seated in a window seat next to Pascal, who had a middle seat, according to the criminal complaint against the pilot. The girl had crutches due to a foot injury, the documents said.
Pascal helped the girl get a blanket and asked about her injured foot, the complaint said. She lowered the armrest between them, spread the blanket over her lap, pulled her legs toward her chest and went to sleep, according to the document.
When she awoke, according to the complaint, the armrest had been raised and the palm of Pascal's hand was touching her inner thigh and gripping her buttock. He was leaning against her and "clearly awake" with his eyes open, the girl told authorities.
The complaint stated the girl elbowed the pilot and pointedly asked him what he was doing. Pascal apologized, said he had been asleep and hurried for the bathroom, the documents said.
The girl notified a flight attendant and switched seats with another passenger at the rear of the airplane.
Pascal was detained at the Salt Lake City airport and questioned by the FBI. Pascal said he raised the armrest between himself and the girl because he was crowded by the man in the aisle seat, according to the complaint.
He said that he fell asleep with his hands in his lap, awoke to the girl jabbing him and did not know where his right hand was when he was awakened, according to the complaint.
Pascal, a resident of Park City, Utah, and the divorced father of a teenage girl, was "blindsided" by his arrest, said Zabriskie, his attorney.
"It's his practice to take a nap on these return flights," he said. "Everything was going normally until he felt an elbow jabbing him and he woke up and that's when his horror began."
(Reporting by Jonathon Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)