- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Raho N. Ortiz, a passenger on U.S. Airways Flight 969 who was questioned and released Monday by the FBI after being accused of disrupting a Pittsburgh-to-Washington flight, was convicted three years ago in a stabbing incident.
The FBI questioned the 33-year-old San Francisco resident for about three hours after sky marshals aboard U.S. Airways Flight 969 apprehended him. Mr. Ortiz was accused of failing to follow commands of the flight crew to remain in his seat as the nearly full Airbus A319 made its descent into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The incident caused the plane to be diverted from Reagan to Washington Dulles International Airport.
Initially, Mr. Ortiz faced charges of interfering and refusing the orders of the flight crew and possession of marijuana while crossing state lines, both felonies. But after consulting with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Alexandria, FBI agents declined to charge Mr. Ortiz with either of the federal crimes and released him about 8:30 p.m.
Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority police then charged Mr. Ortiz with misdemeanor possession of marijuana after his release. Mr. Ortiz is scheduled for trial in Loudon County General District Court Dec. 18.
Some federal law enforcement officials said, however, the federal charges should have stuck because of Mr. Ortiz's criminal history and the Federal Aviation Administration's "zero-tolerance" policy.
According to Arlington County court records, Mr. Ortiz was charged in July 1998 with felony malicious wounding after attacking and stabbing Christopher T. Stearns in the chest during an assault at a party in Arlington County on July 12, 1998. The charges were later reduced to misdemeanor assault and battery, of which Mr. Ortiz was convicted of Nov. 30, 1998. He paid $100 in court costs and was sentenced to 12 months in jail, all of them suspended.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment, referring all calls to the U.S. Attorney's Office. He said federal prosecutors made the decision Monday night to drop the charges against Mr. Ortiz.
Sam Dibbley, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said there was "insufficient evidence for us to charge him." She also noted Mr. Ortiz's criminal history has no bearing on whether or not he was charged.
"Just because the guy's got a prior conviction doesn't mean it has anything to do with this case," Ms. Dibbley said.
The July 1998 fight broke out when Mr. Ortiz, who was then working as deputy counsel for Democrats on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, found out that Mr. Stearns, who was then working for Democrats on the House Resources Committee, had been seeing Mr. Ortiz's ex-girlfriend.
According to sources and press reports, Mr. Ortiz, who was drunk at the time of the fight, went down to the basement where Mr. Stearns was playing pool and began to throw bottles at him.
The Hill newspaper reported in October 1998 that when Mr. Stearns attempted to leave, Mr. Ortiz grabbed a knife from "a basement kitchen and stabbed Stearns below the armpit" before Mr. Ortiz could be calmed down.
Mr. Stearns, who is now a lawyer at the D.C. firm Hobbs, Dean, and Walker, said the incident was "all water under the bridge now," and declined further comment.
Mr. Ortiz, who is a Navajo, has worked since February as an environmental protection specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency in California and was traveling "on official business" to the agency's headquarters in Washington when the plane was diverted, EPA spokeswoman Lisa Fasano said.
Mr. Ortiz was apparently still in the D.C. area, she said, because he had not come back to California by yesterday evening. Attempts to reach Mr. Ortiz for comment were unsuccessful.
It was the first time the new marshals, which sources say are aboard each flight in and out of Reagan, ordered the diversion of a flight. A new FAA regulation requires flights to be diverted from Reagan if there is a disturbance aboard a plane bound for the airport.
Another new rule requires passengers to be seated 30 minutes prior to takeoffs and landings of flights in and out of Reagan.
Passengers and law enforcement sources said Mr. Ortiz knew of the new FAA policy because it was announced by flight attendants.
Those sources also said he repeatedly apologized for the incident, insisting that he just wanted to go to the restroom, which is near the cockpit of the plan.
Crew and passengers were already on edge, too, since earlier in the day American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in New York, killing at least 262 persons. Federal investigators say the plane crashed because of mechanical failure.


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