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Cockpit attacker suffered from rare disease

By Kim Curtis The Associated Press
Saturday October 21, 2000

Prosecution, defense agree that Peter Bradley had a rare reaction to encephalitis, are working on settlement 


SAN FRANCISCO – A man who broke into the cockpit of an Alaska Airlines flight yelling “I’m going to kill you!” and lunging for the controls was suffering from an extremely rare reaction to encephalitis. 

That’s the conclusion of both prosecutors and the defense attorney for Peter Bradley, 39, who were working Friday to negotiate a settlement in the case. 

“Sounds to me like he has a very good defense attorney,” said a noted encephalitis researcher, Dr. Ian Lipkin at the University of California, Irvine. “Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it likely? I’d have to review the data.” 

The medical mystery took experts hired by both the prosecution and defense weeks to unravel, said Bradley’s attorney Jerrold Ladar. Bradley has no memory of the cockpit attack, he said. 

“In the combined 50-plus years of criminal prosecution and defense work, neither of us has seen the sort of effort that was needed to track down the medical cause of the problem,” Ladar wrote in court papers filed Wednesday. 

Doctors hired by both sides of the case agreed “wholeheartedly” on the diagnosis, Ladar wrote. “Two highly qualified neurologists ... concur that Mr. Bradley was in a delirious state as a result of encephalitis — the defendant did nothing to bring it on.” 

Flight 259 was enroute from Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco on March 16 when Bradley, who was returning from a family reunion, began babbling incoherently, stripping off his clothes and wandering from seat to seat. 

His agitation gradually increased, passengers say, until he broke into the cockpit, threatened the pilots and grabbed for the controls. 

The pilot momentarily lost control of the jet as the co-pilot fended off the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Bradley with an ax. Passengers tackled and restrained him. 

Bradley faces federal charges of committing a violent act likely to endanger an airplane and assaulting a flight crew. Both charges are punishable by as many as 20 years in prison. He remains free on $100,000 bond. 

Bradley, a self-employed carpenter from Blue Springs, Mo., has returned to his job and family since being released and has suffered no subsequent outbursts. 

“When he read the reports from the passengers about what happened he was horrified,” Ladar said. 

Doctors and lawyers, friends and family were mystified by Bradley’s behavior. He had no alcohol or illegal drugs in his system, no history of psychiatric problems and his only previous run-ins with law enforcement were two traffic violations in 1979. 

“He’s an American-as-apple-pie kind of guy,” Ladar said. 

What finally prompted doctors to consider encephalitis was a high protein count in Bradley’s spinal fluid, his lawyer said. Normal range is between 15 and 45 milligrams; Bradley’s was 60. 

Bradley’s condition — he had been suffering from headaches for almost a month — was worsened by lack of sleep and the changing air pressure in the plane. 

“A unique combination of wind, sun, breathing apparatus, function, hypertension medication and air pressure combined to cause the delirium,” Ladar said. 

Independent neurologists told The Associated Press such a phenomenon is possible, though highly unusual. 

The most common symptoms of encephalitis include fever, headache and fatigue. When behavioral changes do occur, they are usually “lethargy and confusion more than agitated delirium,” said Dr. Richard Price, chief of neurology at San Francisco General Hospital. 

Dr. Diane Griffin at Johns Hopkins University called Bradley’s “a plausible scenario,” adding that people have been admitted to psychiatric hospitals before doctors realized they were suffering from encephalitis. 

“If somebody had an infection in their brain and it was affecting the parts of the brain that causes behavior ... then the person is not responsible for their behavior,” she said. 

Ladar said the best-case scenario would be to dismiss the case. 

“In this situation he’s unconscious because of the delirium,” Ladar said. “Criminal law says that’s a defense to these charges.” 

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hall acknowledged in court Friday that doctors from both sides had agreed on the encephalitis diagnosis. But Hall pushed for a finding of temporary insanity, and disagreed that the charges should be summarily dismissed on the grounds that the crime resulted from a medical, rather than mental condition. 

The judge said he would rule next month on that point. Meanwhile, settlement talks continue, and Bradley is expected in court Thursday to give permission for a psychiatric evaluation.