PALM BEACH -- Thomas Kiefer Jr. felt like the little guy - a speck on the ground pointing an even smaller speck of light at a helicopter that was shining a 30-million Candlepower searchlight onto his parents' home.
But inside the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office helicopter last week, pilots Carl Kamstra and Dave Fell saw serious dangers posed by the green laser as it lit up their cockpit.
"If you get it in your eye, it can burn the interior. It can do quite a bit of damage," Kamstra said. "And it can be very disruptive."
Contending with a nationwide surge in the number of laser incidents disrupting the piloted skies, the Sheriff's Office and the FBI came down hard on Kiefer. After identifying the house on Dillman Road west of West Palm Beach, they arrived with a search warrant and assault rifles that the family says were pointed at them as agents tossed through drawers and closets in search of lasers. They confiscated 10 lasers.
Kiefer, 22, spent the night in jail and faces a third-degree felony.
The lights are easy to obtain and legal to own if used correctly. Hoping to get the message out that lasers must not be pointed into cockpits of aircraft, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw joined federal and airport authorities Monday to announce the arrest.
"It's not about this particular person being a danger," Bradshaw said at a news conference at Palm Beach International Airport. "When somebody uses a laser to paint the cockpit, it can blind the pilot and an aircraft can go down."
Kiefer and his parents, Thomas and Kathleen, were taken by surprise. The family said they were unable to get a copy of an arrest document, yet there was the sheriff, publicly revealing the details of their son's arrest.
They said they weren't given a chance to read the search warrant and were forced outside as agents searched the house, threw their belongings on the floor and kicked in the door to Kiefer's room, while his mother stood out back shouting, "Don't break the door down, I have the key."
"They held me outside like I was a criminal, guns pointing at me," said Kathleen Kiefer, who worked as a federal airport security screener at PBIA for three years until she went out on disability last year.
Kiefer's parents both said they offered to cooperate and to hand over any lasers. But the agents refused.
A spokesman for the Sheriff's Office declined comment on the Kiefers' account.
The Sheriff's Office said there have been several laser incidents this year, including one in July that they think came from the same house.
Kamstra said that after he and Fell were lasered last Tuesday, they circled the area and shined the spotlight on the house but the laser didn't stop.
"This seemed to me so blatant," Kamstra said.
Sheriff's Detective Eric Reid said Kiefer later told deputies that "The helicopter was blinding him, so he wanted to blind the helicopter back."
Kiefer, a business student at Palm Beach Community College and an avid gun collector, said he played with the laser but denied he intentionally shined it in the cockpit.
"If a cop would have said, 'Hey, you shined a light at a bird, do you know that's a federal offense? Do it again and you will go to prison,' I would have thrown mine away," he said.Dianna Cahn can be reached at email@example.com or 561-243-6645.