A former Bowling Green State University student who made a false-distress call while flying over Lake Erie was sentenced to three months in federal prison and fined nearly $490,000 for the cost of the massive search that ensued.
Danik Shiv Kumar, 21, of Sandusky pleaded guilty Jan. 17 in U.S. District Court in Akron to making a false-distress message to the Coast Guard — a felony-level charge the Coast Guard takes seriously.
“When we’re out searching for nothing, it puts boaters who may find themselves legitimately in danger at risk, because we have assets searching elsewhere for no reason,” said Chief Petty Officer Kyle Niemi, assistant public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s 9th District.
“It also puts our search crews needlessly at risk,” he said, “and finally, it’s a waste of taxpayer money.”
Judge Sara Lioi sentenced Kumar during a two-day hearing Thursday and Friday in Akron. The sentence included 250 hours of community service and restitution of $277,257 to U.S. agencies and $211,750 to the Canadian government, which sent an airplane crew from Ontario to assist in the 21-hour search.
A Coast Guard cutter, three small Coast Guard boats, one Coast Guard helicopter, and a Canadian Coast Guard airplane were dispatched March 14 and 15, 2012 for the search.
Kumar, then 19, was flying solo in a single-engine Cessna plane from Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland to the BGSU airport March 14 when he made a radio call around 11 p.m. to Cleveland-Hopkins Airport control tower to report he had seen “flares going up off the lake.”
He descended for a closer look and reported seeing another flare and what seemed to be a small vessel. He reported seeing four people who each wore a life jacket with a strobe light.
“Roughly four dozen men and women actively searched the waters of Lake Erie for the four missing boaters,” federal court records state. Including staff at U.S. and Canadian command centers, “about 70 members of the USCG and CCG took part in the effort to find Kumar’s purported mariners in distress.”
According to federal court records, Kumar landed in Bowling Green just before midnight but did not report the truth even though he knew a full-blown search had been launched. A month later, he told Coast Guard investigators that his distress call was false.
Cleveland attorney Edmund Searby, who represented Kumar, said his client genuinely believed he had seen a flare but “made a true mistake under stressful conditions” when he reported seeing a boat and four people.
“There was no premeditation to cause a hoax,” Mr. Searby said. “This was a highly unfortunate mistake made by a 19-year-old boy flying for the first time alone at night over water. … This is not the stereotypical case where someone makes a drunken prank. It was a whole different set of circumstances.”
He said Kumar intends to appeal the restitution order.
Mr. Niemi said the restitution order is steep but necessary.
“We hope this sends a message to people who would contemplate doing this in the future — that it is not a joke,” he said.
According to BGSU, Kumar was enrolled at the university through spring semester but is no longer enrolled. Court records state that Kumar “aspired to be a USCG aviator and had already applied to become a member of the USCG Auxiliary, a volunteer civilian component of the USCG.”
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