A drinking cart, an unused mask and a comment about civil rights activist Rosa Parks led to violence on a Delta Airlines plane last week from Tampa to Atlanta, according to court documents and a passenger from Tampa who helped hold a woman.
Delta 2790 departed from Tampa International Airport two days before Christmas. Passenger Patricia Cornwall was on her way back from the toilet and found the hallway blocked by the beverage cart, according to a federal criminal complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court’s Northern District of Georgia.
When a flight attendant asked Cornwall to find another, open seat to wait until the beverage service was over, the complaint states that Cornwall replied, “What am I, Rosa Parks?”
The carriage was stopped near the seat of Russell S. Miller, who “thought Cornwall’s comment was inappropriate,” the complaint said. Miller told Cornwall that she “is not black … this is not Alabama, and this is not a bus.”
When Cornwall then turned his attention to Miller, he told the woman she should “sit down, Karen,” Miller later told an FBI agent. This agent wrote that “further derogatory comments were made by both parties involved.”
Video recorded by another passenger, and referenced in the complaint, shows Cornwall standing over Miller, who is sitting. Both are maskless and shouting.
“Put on your mask. … Dare you not talk to me like that,” Cornwall says in the video.
“I’m eating. Do you want me to pour it over your head?” says Miller.
When a flight attendant in the video tells Cornwall to “mask up now”, Cornwall demands that Miller put on his mask as well. “Cornwall then punched (Miller) with a closed fist … causing visible damage,” the complaint states, “and then spat into (Miller’s) face and head area.”
When Cornwall reached for the phone, she declined to comment, but said she would pass on the reporter’s request to her attorney.
Miller received a scratch on the face, a report from the Atlanta Police Department said, and another passenger was burned by hot water due to “the suspect’s disruptive actions.”
Amilcar Delgado, a delivery employee for a furniture company in Tampa, was sitting nearby on the first part of a family trip to Argentina.
“I had already noticed (Cornwall),” Delgado said, “because I had given a comment to my wife that this woman was up walking around without a mask on.”
When the fight broke out, he said, a flight attendant turned to him and asked for help. He got up, put the woman’s arms behind her back and moved her to the back of the plane.
“I actually have experience,” Delgado said, “because I used to do security in bars and restaurants in New York.”
The flight attendants tried to hold Cornwall with ties, but after she tried to kick one, they gave up, Delgado said. They asked Delgado if he would keep an eye on the woman instead, so he spent the rest of the flight sitting alone with her on an empty row in the back of the plane.
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“She actually calmed down and told me about her two kids and that she was going home to California to meet her mother for Christmas,” Delgado said. “She kept saying, ‘Do not let them hurt me,’ and I said to her, ‘I will do my best.’ ”
Then, Delgado said, the woman took out a vape pen, inhaled, and released a large cloud of steam. The stewardesses ignored it, he said.
Stewardesses are trained in de-escalation techniques, but sometimes situations still escalate beyond what the crew alone can handle, said Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants union. In these cases, the flight attendants are “trained to identify healthy passengers that they can call during an emergency,” she said. “Passengers should only be involved in incidents on board when instructed to do so by a crew member.”
Atlanta police arrested Cornwall when the plane landed. FBI agents later took her into custody. The federal government has jurisdiction over crimes that occur on commercial flights in the United States. She is charged with assault on board a plane and risks a fine and up to a year in prison if convicted.
Cornwall was released on $ 20,000 bail. She appeared in federal court Monday and was ordered to hand over her passport, abstain from alcohol and not to fly except to return home to Los Angeles.
In November, Attorney General Merrick Garland instructed U.S. attorneys to prioritize prosecution of crimes on commercial flights after airlines and federal officials reported an increase in unruly passengers.
That same month, the Federal Aviation Administration fined 10 passengers a total of $ 225,287 for what it said was “alleged misconduct” on planes. Four of those incidents, including a woman accused of pushing a flight attendant when she was kicked off a plane in Tampa, involved passengers who refused to comply with FAA mask requirements.
According to a survey by the Association of Flight Attendants in July, nearly 1 in 5 flight attendants said they were in a “physical incident” this year with a passenger.