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German Traveler's Demand to Use Toilet Landed Him in Jail

October 23, 1993|From Newsday

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A drunken German tourist spent 10 months in a Florida jail on hijacking charges after his slang demand to visit the bathroom during an airplane takeoff was misinterpreted as a bomb threat, according to a federal judge.

The 23-year-old student, Johann Peter Grzeganek, told a flight attendant in broken English that the "roof would go" as she tried to get him to return to his seat on an American Transair L-1011 that was taking off from Ft. Lauderdale Airport bound for Hanover, Germany, Jan. 4.

He struggled with four attendants and repeated the statement, which they interpreted as a bomb threat, rather than German slang for emptying his bladder. He finally pushed past them to the bathroom, relieved himself, returned to his seat and passed out.

The pilot dumped the plane's fuel load at sea as a precaution and turned the aircraft, carrying 326 passengers and a crew of 12, back to the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. "He was passed out and woke up on landing," Anna Jones, one of Grzeganek's lawyers, said in an interview Friday. "He thought he was in Germany and was very surprised to find out he was in Florida and under arrest. He was quite intoxicated."

Grzeganek, who had gone to Florida for a two-week vacation with a school buddy, has been held on $100,000 bail ever since, with the government continuing to insist that he had made a serious threat. He was indicted on four counts of interfering with a flight crew and one charge of threatening to detonate a bomb.

He pleaded guilty in August to interfering with a flight crew and faced a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The story took a turn at a sentencing hearing when the judge, a student of German colloquialisms, indicated he believed the defendant's story. Chief U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger questioned two of the attendants on the crew the day of the incident, including the only one who spoke German. He asked that attendant if she had ever heard the phrase "then the roof flies," which he said was slang for going to the bathroom. She said she hadn't, and continued to insist Grzeganek was making a bomb threat.

"He meant his bladder was going to go, not the plane," said Jones. She added that Grzeganek said he had a fear of flying, which led him to "drink a great deal" before getting on the plane.

Roettger accepted the plea Wednesday and sentenced Grzeganek to time served. "It is a disgrace he's been in jail this long," Roettger said. "Do you see anything that happened that couldn't have been remedied by letting this man go to the bathroom?"

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