U.S. airline passengers have had plenty to gripe about, but mask mandates, canceled flights and missing baggage can’t compare to Michael Lowe’s 17 days in jail.
Mr. Lowe, a Grand Canyon tour guide who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, is suing the Dallas-based company after a frightening jailhouse ordeal that started when American Airlines wrongly and inexplicably identified him as the person who burglarized a duty-free shop at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in May 2020.
“I sat in a county jail for 17 horrendous, life-altering days, just scared out of my mind, trying to figure out what was going on,” Mr. Lowe told The Washington Times.
He was a passenger on a flight from Flagstaff to Reno, Nevada, on May 12, 2020. After a layover at DFW Airport, Mr. Lowe boarded the plane. Among the passengers who boarded with him was a man who had just burglarized a closed airport shop. The unidentified man was caught on video leaving the scene of the crime and walking down the jetway to board the same plane as Mr. Lowe.
Warrants for Mr. Lowe’s arrest were issued, unbeknownst to him. It caught up with him 14 months later when he was visiting friends in New Mexico for the July Fourth holiday and police asked to see his license after a disturbance outside a hotel in New Mexico.
Police hauled Mr. Lowe off to the Quay County Detention Center in Tucumcari, New Mexico, where he was strip-searched and jailed in squalid and dangerous conditions for 17 days. He was unable to afford a lawyer and was utterly confused about why he was there, according to the lawsuit.
Adding to the confusion, the warrant was issued in Tarrant County, the location of DFW Airport and an entirely unfamiliar place to Mr. Lowe. He had set foot there only during the brief airport layover.
“But then I quickly realized it wasn’t stolen identity and they just thought I was the guy.”
Hours in the crowded jail turned into days. Mr. Lowe was housed with violent criminals and gang members and was forced to sleep on a concrete floor. At one point, he witnessed gang members nearly kill another prisoner with their fists, according to the lawsuit.
A lawyer seemed financially out of reach. It could have cost up to $20,000 to retain an attorney to deal with the charges.
That was when he called Detective Juan Torres, the DFW Airport officer who issued the warrant.
Mr. Torres told Mr. Lowe that he still faced criminal charges, including a felony. The charges were finally dropped after Mr. Lowe hired lawyer Scott Palmer, who made the detectives compare the video of the suspect with a photo of Mr. Lowe.
The burglar was described as a tall, thin, White or Hispanic man with a military-style haircut. He was wearing blue jeans and a black polo shirt, police said. In the surveillance video, he is not wearing a face mask.
Mr. Lowe does not have short hair. He is tall and weighs more than 200 pounds. On the flight, he was wearing a T-shirt, a blue jacket and a face covering emblazoned with the state emblem for California.
DFW Airport police declined to comment for this report.
“As required by law, American cooperates with and responds to court orders for information related to possible criminal activity, and that’s what we did in this instance when we were presented with a search warrant,” the statement said.
Mr. Palmer on Thursday filed a lawsuit against American Airlines on behalf of Mr. Lowe for wrongfully naming Mr. Lowe as the burglary suspect rather than giving police the full list of passengers as requested. The lawsuit seeks an undetermined amount of damages for lost wages, diminished earning capacity, emotional distress and mental anguish.
“How could this major airline misidentify a passenger in such a grotesque and negligent way, to cause such harm?” Mr. Lowe said. “Did they not follow their own protocols? Do they not have protocols? If they don’t have protocols, they need to implement them. I just don’t want this to happen to somebody else.”
• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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