Chicago woman pleads guilty for making hoax distress call in 2013

d9CHICAGO – A Chicago woman pleaded guilty to making a false distress call nearly two years ago which led to several agencies launching a dangerous search and rescue operation in Lake Michigan off of Rogers Park Beach, the U.S. Attorney and Coast Guard announced, Thursday.

Leona Chewning, 24, was charged earlier this month with one count of communicating a false distress message to the Coast Guard.

In pleading guilty, Chewing admitted that she knowingly and willfully communicated a false distress message to the Coast Guard and caused the Coast Guard to attempt to save lives and property when no help was needed, a violation of Title 14, United States Code, Section 88c. She pleaded guilty today at her arraignment before U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle in Federal Court in Chicago.

Today’s announced guilty plea was made by Zachary Fardon, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and Capt. Nicholas Bartolotta, chief of response for the Ninth Coast Guard District.

Shortly after 9 p.m. on Feb. 4, 2013, Chewning called Chicago 911 from Rogers Park Beach stating a person was in distress in the icy water just off a seawall. An ice rescue team from Coast Guard Station Wilmette Harbor responded by land.

An air crew also launched aboard a Dolphin helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, Michigan. Members of the Chicago Police and Fire departments also responded with personnel and assets.

Chicago Fire Department divers entered the water near the location where Chewning claimed a person fell in, but did not locate anyone. Chewning admitted that at the time she made the call, she knew her report was false. The case was subsequently turned over to the Coast Guard Investigative Services and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“False distress calls like this one tie up valuable assets and put our crews at risk since we take every distress call seriously,” said Bartolotta. “They impede the ability of first responders like the Coast Guard and our partners to respond to real distress where lives may be on the line. We want to make sure people know the dangers and consequences of knowingly making a hoax call.”

“Hoax calls are costly and risky for the responding agencies and the personnel who put their lives on the line to save others,” said Fardon. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Coast Guard will prosecute those who needlessly make false rescue reports and hold them accountable for their crime.”

Coast Guard response helicopters and boats can cost more than $10,000 and $4,000 per hour respectively to conduct search and rescue operations.

Intentionally deceiving the Coast Guard is a federal felony with a maximum penalty of six years in prison, a $250,000 fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search. This search cost the Coast Guard $13,613.

Chewning is free on her own recognizance while awaiting sentencing on April 22.

Her plea agreement anticipates an advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines range of 4 to 10 months incarceration, and the court must impose a reasonable sentence.

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