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Police: Homeless Man Knocked Out Radar, Landing Light at Sky Harbor After Release From Jail

A suspected vandal shut down a radar tower and landing light at Sky Harbor airport last month.EXPAND
A suspected vandal shut down a radar tower and landing light at Sky Harbor airport last month.
Ray Stern
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UPDATE: Micheal Preston was indicted by a grand jury on April 6 in connection with three felonies: burglary, criminal damage, and trespassing at a critical public service.

UPDATE: Officials with the airport, Federal Aviation Administration, and Phoenix police later said that the landing light was not in use at the time. Backup radar covered the radar tower that was turned off, and airport operations were not affected, they said. Officials still haven’t commented on how Preston accessed the secure area. See below for more details.

Micheal Preston's most recent alleged vandalism damaged "critical" airport equipment, but didn't affect airport operations, officials said.

As New Times reported on Wednesday, the 41-year-old homeless man was arrested on suspicion of vandalism at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport that shut off a radar tower and an airport runway light on February 20.

Five days earlier, Preston had been arrested in a similar case involving transmission-tower equipment on South Mountain, but he was released from jail without bail.

Police said that sometime between about 10 p.m. on February 19 and 5 a.m. on February 20, Preston entered a secured area on a Sky Harbor airfield without authorization.

He shut off breaker switches for climate-control units that cool airport radar, according to a police booking sheet.

The subsequent overheating caused wire damage that knocked out a radar tower and a radio transmitter. He removed batteries and wires to an airport gate, damaging the gate electronics. And he opened an electrical panel and shut off breakers at the end of runway 25L, "causing the landing light to turn off." [See correction below.]

"These lights are critical for the safe landing of aircraft on this runway at a major and very busy airport," police said.

Officials didn't say how long the equipment remained disabled.

Preston also reportedly damaged a power box and antenna for National Weather Service equipment.

The equipment is owned and maintained by the city of Phoenix for Sky Harbor, police said.

New Times asked the city of Phoenix Aviation Department about the incident; officials said they would look into the matter and possibly release a statement.

The Sky Harbor incident wouldn't have happened if Preston had been held on bail following the alleged vandalism at South Mountain.

In that case, police said that about 7 a.m. on February 15, Preston crawled under a security fence on the summit of South Mountain and damaged transmission-tower equipment, knocking out several local TV and radio signals for about an hour.

Police wanted him charged with felony trespassing, criminal damage, and burglary. Early the next day, Maricopa County Court Commissioner Sigmund Popko released Preston on his own recognizance. The move follows a trend in the Arizona court system, to be made official in April, that calls for the release of crime suspects who can't afford to post bail if they're not deemed a flight risk.

Police considered Preston an investigative lead in a third case, though it's not clear whether Popko had received that information.

A few hours before the early-morning South Mountain incident, police believe that Preston damaged radio and TV towers on Shaw Butte in North Phoenix, about 20 miles from South Mountain.

Armed with a court order, police found Preston on March 15 and obtained his DNA and fingerprints. He was released pending the results. A few days later, the crime lab matched Preston's fingerprints to those found at the Sky Harbor crime scene.

Late Saturday night, police located Preston again. He tried to flee from officers, records state, but was arrested.

Police, again, are asking for felony charges of trespassing, criminal damage and burglary. As of Thursday, Preston still hasn't been charged with any crime, records show.

This time, Preston's being held on a $5,000 cash bond. Court paperwork states that Preston "poses a danger to the community based on the alleged facts in this case."

UPDATE 5:30 p.m.:

Heather Lissner, a city of Phoenix spokeswoman, said that Preston's actions did not affect airport operations.

"No runway or taxiway lighting was turned off," she said. "One obstruction light on a radar tower was damaged and had to be replaced. There was some FAA navigational lighting which was not in use at the time turned off for up to two hours."

Ian Gregor, spokesman for the FAA, agreed that airport operations were unaffected.

"Any attempt to damage navigation or communications equipment is a very serious thing," Gregor wrote. "However, we have robust backup systems and redundancies in place throughout the national airspace system to keep operations running safely in case a primary system goes down for whatever reason."

However, officials still have not answered how Preston was able to access the secure area, or what is being done to prevent someone else from doing it.

"It is very serious when security is breached under any circumstance and we are investigating," said city spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez.

Phoenix Police Sergeant Vince Lewis later said that the probable cause statement submitted to Maricopa County Superior Court by Officer Keith Backhaus did not intend to refer to a runway landing land that was in use.

Backhaus wrote in the document, "The electrical panel at the end of runway 25L had been opened and all of the breakers were turned off, causing the landing light to turn off."

Later on Thursday afternoon, following New Times' contact with the FAA and city of Phoenix staff, Lewis called back to explain and clarify the damage.

"The light would be used to aid in navigation during instrument approaches in inclement weather on a runway that was not being used the night of the incident," he said. "No pilots were looking for that light."

Probable cause statements are written up by law officers to justify an arrest. If the judge who reviews the statement doesn't agree there was probable cause for the arrest, the suspect is freed. Otherwise, the judge sets the terms for the person's release — in Preston's case, the requirement to deposit a $5,000 cash bond.

"We're dealing with someone who has the potential to cause damage to these critical sites," Lewis said.

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