Witness testifies at accused airline groper trial
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A witness to an alleged groping incident on a cross-country flight testified in federal court Monday that he saw the man next to him “spooning” the alleged victim with one arm around her shoulder and the other underneath a blanket on her lap.
Evan Focht’s testimony came during the second week of the sexual abuse trial of Bawer Aksal, a Turkish-born U.S. citizen who lives in North Bergen. It appeared to corroborate at least some of the alleged victim’s account of the incident on the United flight from Phoenix to Newark last August.
In direct testimony last week and again under cross-examination Monday, the woman — who is using a pseudonym during the trial due to the nature of the criminal charge — testified she awoke from sleeping to find Aksal fondling her breasts with one hand while he stuck his other hand down her shorts and sexually assaulted her with his fingers.
Questioned by defense attorney Robert DeGroot, the woman described how she fell asleep during a movie and woke up as Aksal assaulted her. He had reached around and stuck his right hand through the arm hole in her blouse and had his arm and hand on her breasts, she said.
“When I woke up and realized what was going on, I flinched backward and said, ‘Get off me!’” she said. “He then pulled me closer and whispered, ’Kiss me” in my ear. I was completely confused as to what was going on. I just couldn’t believe this was happening.”
Focht, a high school English teacher in New York, sat in the aisle seat with Aksal in the middle and the woman in the window seat. He told jurors that Aksal motioned to him to turn off his overhead light in the mostly darkened cabin. He said he hadn’t noticed any interaction between Aksal and the woman to that point.
Using three airline seats set up in the courtroom and with Assistant U.S. Attorney Danielle Walsman playing the alleged victim, he demonstrated what he saw Aksal do next.
“She was still turned toward the window, and the defendant was kind of spooned up next to her so there was no space between him and her,” he said. Focht said he saw Aksal’s hand under the sweater on the woman’s lap, then put his other arm around her shoulder.
“It appeared as though they were a couple,” Focht continued. “That’s why it was confusing to me because it was so incongruous to the way the flight had been going.”
The woman woke up with a start and slammed down the armrest, Focht testified. He said when she motioned to him that she wanted to get out into the aisle, Aksal looked at her as she stood up and casually said, ‘Oh, do you want to get out?’”
On cross-examination, DeGroot noted Focht initially told police that Aksal draped the sweater over the woman’s lap and moved the armrest out of the way, neither of which Focht admitted actually seeing occur. On re-direct questioning, Walsman emphasized that the rest of Focht’s testimony was based on his own observations.
DeGroot also grilled the alleged victim about a text message sent from her phone to an FBI agent that said she would agree to testify in the case if the agent could get an unrelated obstruction charge against her son dismissed. The woman testified her son sent the text.