By Betsy Scheinbart
At least four men accused of calling in false bomb threats to JFK airport and other Queens locations will face new, harsher penalties if they are convicted, law enforcement officials said last week.
In the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on Lower Manhattan, bomb threats were called into several Queens locations and John F. Kennedy International Airport. In most of the incidents, suspects were arrested soon after the calls were placed.
As bomb threats continued to be called in last week, Gov. George Pataki signed a state law Sept. 17 increasing the penalties for falsely reporting an incident from a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail to a violent felony punishable by 1 1/3 to four years in prison.
The next day three men were arrested at JFK and at a store in Jamaica for allegedly calling in false bomb threats, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said. If they are convicted, they will face the new penalty, the DA said.
“Each and every threat — regardless of its motivation — must be and will be taken very seriously,” Brown said. “The new enhanced penalties are an appropriate response to those who falsely report incidents that threaten harm to their fellow citizens.”
Marcelo Almeida, 27, of 101-26 111th St., Richmond Hill, faces federal charges for allegedly calling in two false reports to 911 on Sept. 17, saying there was a bomb in Terminal 4, the new international arrivals building at JFK, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District said.
Almeida is an employee of a food service business at the airport. Because he is being charged with a federal offense, he could face up to 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
Emergency dispatchers notified the authorities, who used dogs to search Terminal 4, but no bomb was found.
According to Port Authority officers who interviewed and arrested Almeida, he admitted he made the bomb threats “for fun.”
His arrest came as the U.S. Attorney’s office, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have combined forces to identify anyone responsible for such threats, which distract from the efforts to find those responsible for the Sept. 11 attack, said Alan Vinegrad, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, which covers Queens.
“As misguided individuals continue to make bomb threats in this district, we will continue our vigorous efforts to catch, prosecute and incarcerate them,” Vinegrad said. “We will not stop in our efforts to bring all such individuals to justice, until they stop their reckless and irresponsible behavior.”
Barry Mawn, assistant director in charge of the New York office of the FBI, said the negative impact of the bomb threats were twofold: first, they make the public uneasy during an already difficult time; second, they further stretch the resources of investigators and public safety personnel already overwhelmed by the Manhattan disaster.
“This crisis has brought out the best in so many New Yorkers. Their volunteerism and spirit have been an inspiration to us all,” Mawn said. “Making false threats as such a time is not only illegal, it’s unconscionable.”
Three men who were arrested Sept. 18 and charged with falsely reporting an incident in the second degree will face the new New York state penalty of up to four years in prison if convicted, Brown said.
Charles Sherban, 71, of Santa Rosa, Calif., was arrested at a checkpoint at Terminal 6 at 7:35 a.m. after he was asked if he had any metal objects in his bag and allegedly replied that he had a hand grenade, Brown said.
Manuel Barrio, 26, of Philadelphia was arrested at 11 p.m. prior to takeoff on a Delta Airlines flight when he allegedly created a loud disturbance and announced he had a hand grenade, Brown said. No grenade was found in either case.
In a separate incident the same day, Pharon Johnson, 26, of 160-30 Baisley Blvd., Jamaica, was arrested at 5:50 p.m. at a store on Jamaica Avenue and 214th Street in Jamaica, the DA said.
Johnson spotted a person in the store wearing a Long Island Jewish Hospital insignia on his shirt and allegedly announced that the hospital would be the next place he would blow up, Brown said.
Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 138.