The mother had been waiting at the Oakland airport for a very long time, and was beginning to worry. The flight had landed nearly an hour ago. She scanned the faces of the children coming through the security checkpoint, but none belonged to her daughter.
There were a lot of reasons that this particular homecoming was a big deal. First, the daughter, an only child, had never been away this long — four whole weeks. She had been at a weight loss camp in Philadelphia, another source of anxiety for the mother. The daughter was a beautiful 13-year-old girl, but she struggled with her weight. The mother thought that sending the daughter to the camp, for no small fee, had been the right thing to do. “I knew how important these years would be for her,” the mother said.
In preparation for the homecoming, the mother had tried to make the house perfect. She had cleaned it entirely, and had decorated the daughter's bedroom to surprise her. The mother bought new shelves and mirrors to put up in the girl's bedroom, which she also decorated with stuffed animals. The mother had done all this with excitement, because she saw this homecoming as a new beginning.
Back at the airport, the woman lost patience and walked to the security desk of United Airlines. She wanted to know why her daughter hadn't gotten off the plane yet. Finally, someone from airport security came to speak with her.
There had been an incident on the plane, he said. It involved her daughter.
The mother couldn't process that information, and she asked the security guard if he was joking. “No,” he told her. There had been an incident, and could she please follow him to the gate. That's when the mother was told the FBI was on the way. Then she saw the flight attendants gathered around her daughter, who was seated with her head down, her shoulders wrapped in a blanket.
The mother ran to her daughter, dropped to her knees, and hugged her. “I love you,” she said. “Baby, what happened?”
The daughter hugged her mother very tightly and started to cry. The mother cried, too, even before she learned that her daughter had allegedly been molested by a man seated next to her on the plane. The man, a widely known pastor from Uganda, has thousands of worshippers in churches he built across Africa, in addition to a radio station, ties to American politicians and spiritual leaders (Pat Robertson included), and an orphanage in Uganda where 1,000 abandoned children reside.
Since the incident, the daughter has had to tell her story again and again. To flight attendants. Her mother. The Alameda County sheriff's deputies. The FBI. Although the deputies and special agents all found the girl's story credible, and the pastor's considerably less so, the U.S. Attorney's office opted not to bring charges.
So although she won't take the stand in criminal court, the girl will tell her story again in depositions and possibly on the stand in a civil case in San Francisco's Northern District Court, where her mother is suing both the man — Jackson Senyonga — and United Airlines. Neither want you to read this story.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of children fly in airplanes without a parent by their side. In 2008, Southwest Airlines alone transported 436,738 unaccompanied minors, but the total number is impossible to know because other airlines, including United, will not release their numbers. The majority of these children reach their destination safely, but there are also children who face obstacles. Last month, in two separate incidents, children flying on Continental got on the wrong flights, and nobody noticed until it was too late.
Ending up in the wrong city is nothing, though, in comparison with ending up next to a child molester. A cursory search in Lexis Nexis, a news search engine, turns up 10 instances of child molestation cases aboard airplanes from the past couple of decades, though there have almost certainly been more. It's likely that many other cases did not make the news, or were never reported by the children.
Although an airplane full of potential witnesses may seem an unlikely place for a child to be molested, criminal and civil lawyers who have handled these cases say that the controlled and confined yet anonymous environment is well suited for a child predator.
In going over the news stories, court documents, and FBI reports on the molestation cases, certain patterns begin to emerge. The predators were all adult males, although they did not fit any other stereotype. One was a computer consultant from India. Two were Hasidic Jews. Another was a world-renowned hairdresser from Savannah, Georgia.
In a majority of the instances, a man switched seats to be next to a child traveling alone. Also, a significant number of the reported molestations occurred on evening flights, when the victim and any potential witnesses were asleep. Several children reported that when the touching began, it seemed accidental or even well intentioned, and only later crossed the line.
In many of the stories, a representative from the airline explained that short of placing a flight attendant beside each traveling minor, there was nothing that could be done to prevent these incidents. America's Aviation Consumer Protection Division — a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation — declined to comment on the issue of unaccompanied minors, although it does put out an information packet titled “When Kids Fly Alone.” The first two lines read: “Many children fly alone. There are no Department of Transportation regulations concerning travel by these 'unaccompanied minors.'”
Left to regulate themselves, the airlines vary in their policies, the packet explains. Most allow children as young as 5 to fly solo, and those between 5 and 11 often incur an additional fee, usually between $40 and $100, for a certain amount of chaperoning. In some cases, those children are given a special button that allows the crew (and perhaps watchful predators) to easily identify the minors. Children between the ages of 12 and 17 are usually not required to purchase a special service ticket, but they have the option.
Although a special ticket doesn't specifically protect the child from molestation, of course, airlines have in some cases chosen to settle civil lawsuits brought against them for negligence and breach of contract due to a molestation accusation. Northwest settled one for more than $500,000, and although the airline subsequently changed the language on its materials about the unaccompanied minor program (airline representatives declined to answer questions about the changes), most other airlines have continued to encourage parents to pay additional service fees for “entrusting your child to us,” as the mother's receipt from United Airlines states.
Although the U.S. Attorney's office has successfully prosecuted a handful of airplane molesters, others have walked away. For the same incident that cost Northwest upward of half a million dollars in a civil settlement, a criminal case went nowhere. There were no witnesses other than the victim, and the jury acquitted the defendant. In some instances where the victim has gone to the police and appeared to have a case, the accused hasn't been prosecuted at all.
In striped pajamas and carrying a teddy bear, the daughter, whom we'll call Emily (the mother requested that her and her daughter's identities be withheld) was traveling back to California from Philadelphia on a United Airlines special service ticket, which cost the mother — who is raising her daughter alone and owns her own business — an additional $99.
On the first leg of Emily's journey, from Philadelphia to Denver, things had gone smoothly. She had been introduced to flight attendants and escorted between gates, and now she was boarding her second flight, heading for her aisle seat in row seven, the second row of coach class.
Before the plane was finished boarding, Emily got up to use the bathroom, and when she returned to her seat, a slight man smartly dressed in a paisley shirt and jeans was standing in the aisle. He indicated to her that he was going to sit in 7E, the middle seat in her row, and she allowed him to pass. The flight took off around 10 p.m., and soon after, the cabin went dark and Emily fell asleep.
Here is what Emily told the police: She awoke to the man's elbow rubbing against the side of her stomach, and he was really close to her. Still, she thought maybe he was just moving around, so she closed her eyes and tried not to think about it. The man continued rubbing her stomach with his elbow. Then his leg was brushing up against hers, through her pajamas. When Emily turned to look at the man, he was staring at her. She felt very uncomfortable, but said nothing, and instead placed her teddy bear between her stomach and the man's elbow. Still, he seemed to be moving even closer to her.
She didn't understand. He was so skinny and had so much room. Why was he right on top of her? Suddenly his hand was on her thigh, and he was tugging at her seat belt. Then he was pulling on her underwear. Emily said she pushed his hand away, and he put it back. She pushed it away again, took her seat belt off, and resituated her teddy bear between herself and the man. She moved as far as she could toward the aisle.
That's when the man put his hand inside her pajama pants and underwear, Emily later told the police, and he began moving his hand back and forth over what she called her “privates.”
With that, Emily jumped up and made for the front of the airplane. “I want to move! I want to move!” she told a flight attendant, who noticed that Emily was shaking and later said so to the police.
The man had also gotten up and followed Emily to the front, and his presence seemed to make her shake even more, the flight attendant told police. She ordered the passenger to take his seat, and when he did, she noticed that he buried his head in his hands. According to the flight attendant, the man stayed in that position for the remainder of the flight.
Emily was moved to first class, where she was at first reluctant to talk, but eventually the story came out. Emily — the flight attendant told police — seemingly blamed herself. “I should have done something sooner,” the attendant remembered the girl saying. The flight attendant alerted the pilot, who contacted authorities at the Oakland airport. When the plane landed, the deputies came on board and asked everyone to stay in their seats.
The man who was covering his head in seat 7E, 41-year-old Jackson Senyonga, to this day says he never put his hand down Emily's pants. His uncomfortable interviews with Alameda County sheriff's deputies and FBI special agents began with questions about his personal history, which can also be gleaned from various Web sites and online bios.
Senyonga is from Uganda, but travels back and forth between there and the United States. He works on a religious visa with the Rock of Wilmington Church in North Carolina, though he lives in Flower Mound, Texas, with his wife and three children. In Flower Mound, near Dallas, Senyonga and his wife, Eve, are co-pastors of Christian Life Ministries. Senyonga also has a congregation of 40,000 people in Uganda, where he owns a radio station, Top Radio, and once owned a now-defunct newspaper, The Guardian. Senyonga also owns a Ugandan orphan village in which 1,000 children reside.
According to his bio, when Senyonga was 3 months old, his mother abandoned him and his father was apparently killed during Idi Amin's regime. Through “God's grace at work,” Senyonga was able to build a congregation in Kampala, Uganda, up from seven to 2,000 people in just two weeks. His ministry continued to grow as Senyonga installed 1,000 churches in four countries, and eventually, according to his bio, he started hanging around in the U.S. with governors, senators, mayors, and spiritual leaders, including Pat Robertson.
His international preaching circuit often carries him around the world, so it's no surprise that Senyonga is a “premier” flier with United Airlines. One of the privileges of a premier flier is early boarding, but Senyonga told the FBI he was one of the last people to get on Flight 505 to Oakland. He claimed that when he got to his assigned seat — aisle seat 10D — someone was already sitting there. He didn't want to make a big deal out of it, Senyonga told the authorities, so he took the closest open seat, three rows up. A middle seat. For a nearly three-hour flight.
When police interviewed flight attendant Maria Wynn, she told them there were plenty of open seats closer to the one Senyonga had been assigned. 10E and 10B were open, she said, as was the entire exit row behind him. That was just one instance where Senyonga's story contradicted details provided by the flight attendant and the girl. On one point, Senyonga even contradicted himself.
In his written statement to police, Senyonga penned, “I never touched the young lady with my hands.” But in his police interview, he changed the story. “Possibly my hand, um, several times probably, um, brushed over her as we rode the plane. And that's all,” he said. It could have been while he was turning the page of the newspaper, he said. (The flight attendant noted that at the time of the alleged incident, there were no reading lights illuminated in that row, making it unlikely that Senyonga was reading a newspaper). Or he might have touched her when he had to lean closer to her because of the snoring man next to him. Or when he took off his shoes.
As he was interrogated, his hands and body were shaking, according to the police report. When asked about Emily, Senyonga estimated her to be 21 or 22 years old. He believed this, he said, because “she was a big girl.” He also told police she was mature and that she was well-endowed in the breasts. When asked if he took notice of the pin on her chest, the one that indicated she was an unaccompanied minor, he said he never saw it.
When asked why he thought Emily got up to get a flight attendant, seemed upset, and didn't come back, Senyonga said he thought maybe she was feeling sick. He said he got up after she did because he thought it was an opportune time to use the bathroom, and claimed that when he went back to his seat he took a nap. Basically, Senyonga acted as if nothing noteworthy had taken place on the flight.
But when the officers left the interrogation room for a break, a camera videotaped Senyonga in the same position that the flight attendant had noticed him in — head in his hands — for the full five minutes. When the officers re-entered the room, they told Senyonga they knew he was lying. He didn't argue with them, but he didn't confess, either.
After police took him out of the interrogation room and put him under arrest for alleged child molestation, Senyonga said he wanted to go back in the room so he could tell the truth. “The difference is some [sic] happened, so that's why I'm in this room,” he's quoted as saying in a police report. “I am willing to say what I need to say to be able to get this resolved. I'm not willing to confess what's not true, unless you tell me to just go ahead and do that if it will help you, but definitely I know there's some kind of harm for a girl.”
“To me, I was with her close,” he went on. “That's my truth. Close to her, rubbed her, my elbow and possibly my hand just went close to her, but I never put my hand in her pants. But I'm willing to take a blame. I'm willing to take a blame to get this resolved.” When the interviewers asked Senyonga if he was willing to give a DNA sample, he said he thought he needed an attorney.
Alameda County sheriff's deputies concluded that Senyonga wasn't credible for a number of reasons, including his unusual willingness to accept blame. A deputy also noted that Senyonga's denials were weak and without emotion. “Based on the totality of the circumstances, I believe Senyonga targeted [Emily] and was aware she was a child,” the officer wrote. “It is my belief; Senyonga tried to minimize his actions and took advantage of the situation.”
Unsurprisingly, denials in airplane molestation cases are popular, and they tend to work. In at least two cases, men who the FBI believed were guilty beat federal charges, and one of those cases looks strikingly similar to Senyonga's.
In 2001, Ravichandra Thuluva, a 28-year-old from Mumbai, India, was seated next to a 10-year-old girl on a flight from Kansas City to Detroit. After the girl deplaned, she immediately told her stepfather that the man had put his hand down her pants and into her shirt. She said that although she slapped his hand away numerous times, he kept at it.
The girl then pointed Thuluva out to the authorities as he waited to board a flight to the Netherlands, and he denied it all. He had only placed his hand on her thigh on two occasions to calm her, he told the FBI. There were no witnesses, and in 2005, a jury acquitted Thuluva.
But U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen, who presided over a civil suit against the airline, saw merit in the case. He rejected a long line of motions to dismiss, and the girl and her family ended up settling with Northwest Airlines for more than $500,000. A key part of their argument was the $40 extra that the family had paid for their daughter to be placed in the airline's “unaccompanied minor program.” On her flight, there were about 10 other unaccompanied minors, making it difficult for attendants to monitor all of them, Rosen pointed out.
In another airplane molestation case tried in federal criminal court, Ronald Evan Mays was convicted, but the verdict was thrown out after a judge admitted evidence improperly. Two witnesses and an 8-year-old girl had testified against Mays, who switched seats to sit next to the girl on a Southwest flight in 2006. The girl said Mays touched her thighs and continuously touched his penis throughout the flight. At one point, she said, he placed a Southwest napkin map of the United States in his lap and asked the girl to point out cities.
A witness on the flight had even reported Mays' behavior to a flight attendant, but nothing came of it until the girl disembarked in Detroit and told a grandparent what had happened.
The subsequent investigation of Mays revealed he deleted thousands of files from his computers at work, some of which contained child pornography. But the judge, Steven Merryday, mistakenly allowed that into evidence, so the conviction of Mays had to be thrown out. Prosecutors decided to drop the case rather than put the young girl through the trauma of a second trial.
Although Mays was later convicted of obstructing the investigation, his name does not appear in the National Sex Offender Registry.
There are more examples of adult male passengers switching seats to be next to minors. On Jan. 6, 2007, a passenger aboard a Delta Airlines flight from San Diego to Atlanta switched seats mid-flight to be next to an 11-year-old flying by herself. According to a complaint filed in the State Court of Fulton County, the man began forcefully kissing the child, and jabbing his hands into her stomach (she was later treated for a ruptured ovary, the complaint states). He also touched her face and his penis at the same, claiming he had an itch.
When her assailant got up from his seat, the girl asked a flight attendant to be moved, but according to the complaint, her request was denied. The girl had to ask a second time before the flight attendant agreed to move her.
Upon leaving the plane, the girl told her mother what happened, and the mother reported the events to airline officials, who she says declined to help and referred her to the police. The mother then reported the molestation to her hometown police in Huntsville, Alabama, the Atlanta police, and eventually the FBI, but no suspect was ever identified, and no criminal charges filed. The family's lawyer, Mark Tate, says he believes the case simply wasn't a priority. He also says airlines need to be more vigilant in regards to seat-swapping.
“These people are predators,” Tate said. “It's not something they just fall into. They plan it. The airlines have a duty to understand what they're doing when they have these minors on board.” The settlement between his client and Delta Airlines is confidential, Tate said.
Not all molestation victims have been able to sue the airline. A California District Court of Appeals threw out a civil case last year involving a girl who fell asleep on a United Airlines flight and woke up with a man holding her hand near his penis. Because United Airlines failed to protect her, the girl's lawyer argued, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the girl's family hadn't paid the airline for any special services, so the lawyers attempted to use Warsaw Convention Article 17, which holds airlines responsible if a passenger sustains “bodily injury.” The court determined that PTSD didn't qualify as a physical injury, and dismissed the case. The man on the plane, Richard Samson, settled a civil case with the victim for $350,000, according to the girl's lawyer, Baird Brown, who said Samson also pleaded guilty to sexual battery charges. The only story about that case appeared in a legal newspaper, and focused on the judge's decision to throw out the case. Samson's name wasn't even mentioned.
When the news of Senyonga's arrest on molestation charges was reported in several papers, those closest to Senyonga stood by him. Some members of his congregation vowed to support him “to our last drop of saliva.”
In a teleconference from the United States, Eve Senyonga told Christian Life Church in Bwaise, Uganda, that she believed her husband was innocent, and Alex Mitala, another Ugandan pastor, told an African newspaper that Senyonga's version of events was plausible. Christopher Songa, a pastor at Christian Life Church, announced to the congregation that the charges were false and had been sensationalized by the media. “Allegations against born-again Christians sell like hot cake,” he said.
Although the FBI investigation of Senyonga has been concluded, no charges have been filed by the U.S. Attorney's office. A source close the investigation told SF Weekly that the FBI agents who worked on the case were convinced that the girl was telling the truth, and that she was traumatized. They also believed that when Senyonga moved up three rows to take the middle seat, he did so to take advantage of a young girl who looked weak and insecure — typical predatory behavior. The idea that Senyonga had gained access to a thousand orphaned children fit in with their knowledge of how pedophiles often operate, and greatly disturbed the agents working on the case.
Although they tried to put pressure on the U.S. Attorney's office to take the case, the FBI source said, it was ultimately declined. U.S. Attorney's office spokesman Jack Gillund said he couldn't release any information.
The girl, for her part, had been more than willing to testify.
Whatever the reason the case was declined, Senyonga is back on the preaching circuit in the United States and abroad. Reached at his church in Flower Mound, he sounded less than pleased to hear from a reporter. “I have no comment at this time,” he said, then called one of his five lawyers. “We adamantly deny it, obviously,” said attorney Michael Betz, who had no other comments.
United Airlines also declined to comment on the case, and similarly refused to answer any questions about its unaccompanied minor program. Through court documents, though, the airline denied legal responsibility for what happened.
The airline's lawyers have argued that the special service ticket for a minor is limited in what it provides. All that the $99 fee means, apparently, is that a child will be helped to board the aircraft, introduced to the flight attendants, chaperoned during connections, and turned over to an appropriate person upon arrival.
So much for United's “thank you for entrusting your child to us.”
The girl's mother would like other parents to know that sending a child alone on an airplane and paying extra doesn't mean there are any additional precautions taken. “Look what happened to my daughter,” she says.
Christopher Dolan, the attorney whose firm is representing Emily and her mother, says that airlines should be required to seat unaccompanied minors at the front of their aircraft, so they can be more easily monitored by flight attendants. That way, if someone switches seats to be next to a minor, flight attendants are in a position to notice and ask the passenger to return to his or her original seat. “They should do what they are paid for — supervising the child in flight,” Dolan says.
Dolan also says that standards for the care of unaccompanied minors should be regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. “This is not the first such incident and it probably will not be the last unless and until this type of transaction is regulated,” he said.
Emily, who is now a Bay Area ninth grader, has been deeply affected by what happened on the airplane, her mother says. Her grades have slipped. Her outlook on life is dimmer. She is in counseling. “Our lives just aren't the same anymore,” the mother said, “and my daughter is just not the same little girl anymore.”