BALTIMORE, Md. — Federal authorities have reduced a charge from a felony to a misdemeanor against a North Carolina college student accused of hiding box cutters on four airplanes to expose weaknesses in security, according to court records.
Nathaniel Heatwole, 20, is scheduled for an initial appearance and arraignment April 23 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore before Magistrate Judge Paul Grimm. A plea was expected at the hearing, court records show.
Heatwole was released without bail in October to await trial on a charge of taking a dangerous weapon aboard an aircraft. The charge carried a possible 10-year prison sentence.
Court records indicate prosecutors reduced the charge last month to entering an area of Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Sept. 14 in violation of security requirements.
Heatwole, of Damascus, Md., faces a maximum penalty of up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine for bringing banned items into the passenger screening area.
Heatwole's attorney, Charles Leeper, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey Eisenberg, who is handling the case, declined Monday to comment.
Heatwole told federal authorities that he hid box cutters, modeling clay made to look like plastic explosives, matches and bleach on Southwest Airlines flights in an act of "civil disobedience" to expose weaknesses in security. He boarded one of the plays at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, getting past security screeners in the process.
Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, said he believed authorities reduced the charge to resolve "a complete embarrassment to the United States government."
"It doesn't surprise me that they have lowered the charges to a misdemeanor and want to get this case out of the public eye as soon as possible," said Greenberger, a Justice Department official under former President Bill Clinton.
The Transportation Security Administration received a signed e-mail Sept. 15 from Heatwole saying he had "information regarding six security breaches" at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland and RDU between Feb. 7 and Sept. 14, according to an FBI affidavit.
Heatwole told authorities that he left packages in rear bathrooms on four of six planes he flew on. Packages were found last year on April 13 and April 14 in planes in RDU and Tampa, Fla., but it was unclear when they were planted.
Objects placed in mid-September aboard Southwest Airlines flights that landed in New Orleans and Houston were not found until Oct. 16, when maintenance staff accidentally discovered them.
According to the affidavit, Heatwole's e-mail "stated that he was aware his actions were against the law and that he was aware of the potential consequences for his actions, and that his actions were an 'act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public."'
The affidavit said Heatwole breached security at RDU Sept. 12 -- the day after the two-year anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The discovery was a chilling reminder of the attacks, in which hijackers used box cutters to take over the jets.
Box cutters and bleach are now among the items that cannot be carried onto planes.
After the discovery, the government ordered a stepped-up inspection of the U.S. commercial airline fleet.
Concern over the incident also led the House Select Committee on Homeland Security to send a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, saying members were "deeply concerned" that the agency "was unable to competently handle the detailed information provided by Heatwole."
Heatwole is a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., a Quaker school that has drawn pacifists throughout its history. Some recently retired faculty members were conscientious objectors from World War II.
Last year, two students were sent to prison for six months for demonstrating at Fort Benning, Ga., against a U.S. training program for Latin American soldiers.