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.