CINCINNATI — An Ohio man who was 19 when he made a false distress call that triggered a massive, 21-hour search on Lake Erie must pay $489,000 in restitution to the U.S. and Canadian agencies involved in the needless rescue effort, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
In a 2-1 ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati found that a lower court properly ordered 21-year-old Danik Kumar of Sandusky to pay for all costs associated with the March 2012 search, launched after he reported seeing a fishing boat with four people on board sending up flares on Lake Erie as he was flying a small plane overhead.
About 70 personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Canadian Coast Guard used three boats, a helicopter and a small plane before calling off the search.
A month later, Kumar told investigators that though he originally thought he saw a single flare go up, he never saw a boat, according to court records.
Kumar told investigators that he continued reporting a boat in distress for fear of sounding stupid and ruining his chances of becoming a Coast Guard aviator, court records say.
After Kumar pleaded guilty to making a false distress call, federal Judge Sara Lioi sentenced him to three months in jail, and ordered him to pay $277,000 to the U.S. Coast Guard and $212,000 to the Canadian Coast Guard.
In upholding Lioi's order, the 6th Circuit majority said that although the ruling is "an onerous burden on the shoulders of a young man," U.S. law was intended to deal harshly with hoaxes to help deter future ones.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Helene White wrote that the government's estimated cost of the search was too high and shouldn't have included indirect costs, such as payroll processing and building maintenance.
Kumar's Cleveland attorney, Edmund Searby, said he's considering his appeal options.
"It's just a sad story," he said. "I'm not defending what he did, but it's an awful large penalty to pay. ... He's never going to recover — on some level — from this."
The government's prosecutor, Michelle Baeppler, argued that Kumar needed to be held responsible for every cost associated with the search, from the gas used in the boats and aircraft to maintenance and depreciation costs incurred from their use.
"His claim that he should only have to pay for a few items ... is truly a simplistic and naive notion of the cost involved in conducting a search and rescue operation," Baeppler wrote.
Searby never disputed that Kumar should pay restitution, but argued it shouldn't be any higher than $118,000.
Searby said Kumar had to drop out of Bowling Green State University's aviation program and is figuring out what to do next.
"Danik's dream has long been to be a pilot, but it's unclear now whether that dream can be realized," Searby said. "I'd hate for it to end like this."