Opinion

Flying child abusers, be warned: You check privacy at the gate

From the Editorial Board

In today’s crowded era of air travel, attentive passengers can help catch sex predators and other bad actors who might not get caught at a TSA checkpoint. That’s what happened on a recent Seattle to San Jose flight.
In today’s crowded era of air travel, attentive passengers can help catch sex predators and other bad actors who might not get caught at a TSA checkpoint. That’s what happened on a recent Seattle to San Jose flight. MCT file photo, 2011

Forget about the in-flight sleep mask. Never mind the first-class curtain. A commercial jetliner is one of the last places a person should expect privacy in this age of overbooked air travel and 17-inch-wide economy-class seats.

On a personal level, the cramped cabin might feel oppressive, and the chatterbox in the next seat might drive you to drink overpriced airline liquor. But the intimate experience can sometimes produce benefits for the individual, other passengers or even society as a whole.

The doctor who was dragged bleeding from a United Airlines plane in Chicago last spring is no doubt thankful it happened in full view of fellow fliers and their cell-phone cameras. Not only did he get justice, but airline executives pledged to reform their passenger-bumping practices.

Bad behavior isn’t easily concealed on a crowded airplane, and secrets are harder to keep.

For that we’re exceedingly relieved after a sharp-eyed passenger helped foil an apparent plot to sexually assault children.

A Tacoma man was brazenly texting details on a July 31 flight from Seattle to San Jose. A female passenger, seated one row behind, spotted unsettling snippets from the text conversation typed in a large font on the man’s phone, including the words “child in their underwear.” She quietly took pictures of his screen and notified the flight crew, who contacted San Jose police.

Mark Kellar, 56, was charged last week in U.S. District Court in Northern California with conspiracy to make child pornography and attempting to entice a minor into sexual activity. His alleged accomplice, Gail Burnworth, 50, of Spanaway, faces federal and state prosecution in Tacoma courts on child pornography, sexual exploitation and related charges.

Kellar and Burnworth had allegedly been communicating about plans for her to molest one of the children she babysits, record it and give him the video. The federal complaint also says Burnworth “was arranging a time for Kellar to have a sexual encounter” with the victims.

It’s an utterly depraved story that could make a person wish for selective application of sharia law in U.S. courts.

The passenger should be awarded either a snoop-of-the-month plaque or a medal for heroism, perhaps both.

But in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, the unnamed woman brushed off any accolades. “I’m just so thankful the kids are safe. I really just did what I did out of my heart. And being an early-childhood educator, I’m trained to look out for that.”

Indeed, Washington and other states have “duty to report” laws. They require teachers, counselors, cops and all other adults in official supervisory roles to contact authorities if they have reason to suspect child abuse or neglect.

Adults who don’t have supervision of children aren’t mandated to report under the law — but it doesn’t preclude them from doing so either. “Any other person who has reasonable cause to believe that a child has suffered abuse or neglect may report such incident,” according to Washington’s law.

Technically, a teacher flying out of state to visit relatives while on summer vacation has no legal duty for children not in her care, kids she’s never met. But this woman felt she had a moral responsibility, and she deserves high praise for her vigilance.

There is a time and a place for people to be secure in their right to privacy.

Any situation where a child’s welfare is placed at risk by a predator’s monstrous impulses will never be that time or place.

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