CHARLOTTE - It's happening on flights crowded with passengers who may never even know that someone in the next row is being sexually assaulted.
“He put his hand on my left leg, and then slid it down in between my legs,” said Reverend Kate Howard as she described what happened to her on a flight from Cancun to Newark, when the man on the other side of her leaned over and started groping her.
“And I just looked at my husband and said, 'He's touching me!'” she said from her home in Indiana, where she had seen an Eyewitness News story on WSOC-TV.com about a similar attack on a flight from Newark to Charlotte two days after her experience.
Because any assault on an airplane in the United States is a federal crime, the job of investigating it falls to the FBI.
“I think we've seen an increase in these occurrences,” said Dean Harp, a special agent with the FBI in Charlotte.
FBI statistics show the number of sexual assaults reported on aircraft has risen steadily - from 38 in 2014, to 40 in 2015, 57 in 2016 and 63 in 2017.
Reports at Charlotte’s Douglas airport have doubled in the last two years - from 4 in 2016 to 8 in 2017.
“Everyone needs to understand it is a federal offense if these crimes are committed on aircraft, and they will be investigated by the FBI,” said Agent Harp.
But for all of their investigations, Eyewitness News found that very few of those cases are ever prosecuted.
“It is certainly something that is causing harm at this airport and across this country,” said Andrew Murray, the new US Attorney in the Western District of North Carolina, which includes Charlotte.
Murray says they would like to prosecute those sexual assaults, but it is often difficult since they rarely have witnesses or physical evidence to work with.
“Without some type of corroborating evidence, witnesses, or video it becomes a tough case to prosecute beyond a reasonable doubt,” Murray said.
The FBI says many victims may not report sexual assaults because they are connecting to other flights and may not want to be delayed.
But agent Harp says it’s critical to alert someone immediately, and pay attention to the details.
“Take note of your surroundings, take note of the people that are around you, what they are wearing, if there are witnesses, if we can get phone numbers, identifiers,” he said.
The FBI now has an agent assigned to Charlotte Douglas International Airport full time and they are hoping it will lead to more reports, and ultimately, to safer skies.
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