MESA, AZ — A 30-year-old Mesa man is behind bars for shining a laser at a police helicopter. Phillip Merrell is also accused of laser striking multiple planes, including a commercial aircraft, last week.
Mesa police sent their helicopter to the area of Southern Avenue and Signal Butte Road to check on reports of a person shining a laser at planes. When the chopper got close, a green light hit them for more than a minute, according to an officer on board.
"Obviously my concern was trying to get it stopped because it had been a continual concern for commercial flights in the area and that puts a lot of people at risk, not just the pilot in the air crew. But also all the passengers on board," said Dan Rendulich, a tactical flight officer with the Mesa Police Department's air unit.
Court documents state that officers were quickly dispatched to the block where the laser was originating. One officer was watching Merrell's home when he heard one man excitedly exclaim to another, "He's coming back around."
The officer then noted that Merrell "learned up against the wall of the garage" and was "holding a green laser and pointing it" at the helicopter.
"It’s disorienting and bright. It kind of fills the whole cockpit and can give you a bunch of different side effects," said the officer who was a passenger in the cockpit when the laser hit.
Merrell allegedly tried to run inside his home as officers approached, but came out when commanded.
He told officers he was scared and said "I don't know" when asked why he was pointing it at the helicopters, according to court documents.
"It may not seem like a big deal on the ground, but it really poses a great risk to the people in the air," said Officer Rendulich.
Later, Merrell admitted to shining the laser at a commercial plane the day before, but the pilot said he did not want to press charges.
The Mesa police air unit says they have had lasers shining at their helicopter at least six times in the past six months. "Unfortunately it’s becoming more common in my opinion," said Officer Rendulich.
Arizona consistently ranks among the top five states in laser strikes. Shining one at an aircraft is both a state and federal crime.
Merrell was arrested and charged with one count of pointing a laser at an occupied aircraft and one count of endangerment involving risk of imminent death.