While digging around in some court records for an unrelated project, I came across the tale of the Roanoke Phantom. I found his story to be one of the most ridiculous ever, so I decided to write it all up and share it here. Enjoy.
All of the following events are true and took place in the latter half of 1993. All text images are directly from federal court records.
The Roanoke Phantom is not a local folk legend, although maybe he could have been. Here’s a guy who, among other things, drunkenly sang “Don’t fuck with the chuck” – a line from Child’s Play 3 – to commercial airline pilots while the FBI listened. This is a guy who led multiple federal agencies on a wild goose chase only to be caught because a vanity license plate. This is a guy who used his wife’s disability checks to buy radio equipment. This is a guy who managed to call in a bomb threat to the jail in which he was imprisoned. And all of this resulted in a decade-long federal prison sentence and one hell of an FBI report.
For about two months, the Roanoke Phantom broadcast unauthorized radio messages to anyone who would listen at the Roanoke airport, including pilots in the air, ground facilities, and remote technicians. At one point, the Phantom was being tracked by three separate federal agencies – FBI, FCC, and FAA – who were all trying to bring about an arrest on federal charges. Enough havoc had been caused by early September that the FAA recorded a special automated information system broadcast specifically warning incoming flights of the “phantom” controller in the area.
At first, the Phantom started out harmless enough. He sang, mimicked actual air traffic controllers, and yelled drunken nonsense. At first, this was kind of hilarious if you ignore the obvious danger, but his rantings soon escalated. He harassed a female air traffic controller, made threats to shoot down aircraft, and loudly transmitted recorded music, weather reports, and arguments with his wife (thus drowning out actual transmissions).
Messing around with aircraft radio communication is a big deal. Two federal felonies are of relevance here. Per Title 18, Section 32: “whoever wilfully… (6) communicates information, knowing the information to be false, and under circumstances in which such information may reasonably be believed, thereby endangering the safety of any aircraft in flight…shall be fined not more than $100,000 or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.”
Profanity is taken seriously too:
Needless to say, if the Phantom were to get caught, he was in some serious trouble. Engineers and technicians recorded a handful of Phantom transmissions and actively traced dozens hoping to triangulate the source. They succeeded several times, but failed to discover tthe Phantom himself for good reason – broadcasts originated from a moving source. Many times, the transmissions would stop moving and technicians would close in, only to find the operator gone once they arrived. Logically, airport officials guessed the Phantom was driving around in a car while transmitting. Finding this car and the individual behind it was beyond the reach of airport employees, so they were forced to appeal to the federal justice system.
David Frey, an FBI special agent with two years experience, was assigned the task of tracking down these illegal radio communications. Most sources used here are derived from Frey’s official FBI brief on the case submitted for use at trial. One of Frey’s tasks was to document all of the Phantom’s criminal activity, which he did with this amazing timeline partially re-created below.
1 Aug, 4:00pm – The Phantom contacted a ComAir flight and invited the crew to smoke some pot with him after they landed.
15 Aug, 7:15pm – The same voice transmitted the following frequency 118.3 MHz (Roanoke Tower): Nobody fucks with the Chuck / (inaudible) body fucks with the Chuck / Don’t fuck with the Chuck / (inaudible) fuck with the chuck
22 Aug, 10:02pm; 23 Aug, 1:50pm ; 2 Sep, 7:00am– The same voice contacted a commercial airliner and instructed they “break off” their landing. The next day, he informed a Cessna three times that they were not cleared to land. About a week later, he contacted a Beechcraft to inform the pilot that he missed his approach. An air traffic controller got involved at this point and reissued clearance to land.
2 Sep, 4:00pm; 3 Sep, 6:22pm – Phantom transmitted multiple “Mayday” distress calls identifying himself as the pilot of a Cessna.
4 Sep, 3:26pm, 4:51pm, 6:22pm, & 8:10pm – The same individual acquired a voice disguising device, probably a cheap megaphone or kid’s toy, but only used it to reel off some expletives for no real reason. He’d also yell out false information on several occasions only to interrupt himself by screaming “April fool!” before going radio silent.
8 Sep, 10:00am to Noon – Phantom continued interrupting flight clearances, masquerading as the Roanoke Memorial Hospital helicopter, and imitating flights. By this point, he had learned a bit about air traffic controllers. For instance, the Phantom instructed commercial flights to execute a missed approach.
Either way, the Phantom also claimed he was done for a while on this evening.
11 Sep, 10:28pm – The Phantom lied.
Next time: The Roanoke Phantom gets caught thanks to a September 13th transmission, the power of alcohol, and a vanity license plate.