Indiana man pleads guilty to search and rescue hoax

NEW ORLEANS — Marcus Schrenker, 38, of McCordsville, Indiana pled guilty today in the Northern District of Florida of making a fake distress call and intentionally crashing a plane. The U.S. Coast Guard had Schrenker indicted on Jan. 14, 2009 with communicating a false distress message and willfully destroying or wrecking an aircraft. Special agents from the Coast Guard Investigative Service field office in Mobile, Ala., led a joint federal investigation with the United States Department of Transportation – Office of Inspector General.

The complaint alleged that Schrenker knowingly and willfully communicated a false distress message and caused the Coast Guard to attempt to save lives and property when no help was needed in violation of Title 14, United States Code, Section 88(c). The complaint further alleged that Schrenker willfully damaged, destroyed or wrecked an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States or a civil aircraft used, operated or employed in interstate air commerce, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 32(a)(1).

Schrenker allegedly reported to an air traffic controller that his aircraft’s windshield had imploded and that he was injured, which spurred a Coast Guard search and rescue effort including:

  • A 41-foot Utility Boat from Coast Guard Station Pensacola, Fla.
  • The Coast Guard Cutter Cobia, an 87-foot coastal patrol boat home ported in Mobile, Ala.
  • An HH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter from Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile, Ala.
  • An HH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans

Knowingly and willfully communicating a false distress message to the Coast Guard or causing the Coast Guard to attempt to save lives and property when no help is needed can include jail time, fines, civil penalties and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.

The maximum penalty for willful destruction of an aircraft is 20 years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, restitution, 3 years of supervised release, and a standard $100 special monetary assessment. The maximum penalty for a false distress message is 6 years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, restitution, 3 years of supervised release, a $100 special monetary assessment, and restitution to the United States Coast Guard for the search and rescue effort..

It costs the Coast Guard approximately $400 per hour to operate a rescue boat to search, and from $1,500 to $3,000 per hour for aircraft and cutters to search. False distress calls can costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

“The results of this case sends a message that, whether aviation or maritime-based, false hoax calls are a tremendous waste of resources and interfere with our ability to reach out to mariners who are really in trouble,” said Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, commander of the Eighth Coast Guard district.

The guilty plea does not include agreements on sentencing and sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

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