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Unruly jet passenger pleads guilty

A British passenger pleaded guilty yesterday to assaulting crew members and threatening to kill everyone aboard a US Airways flight in July, but said he snapped after taking one of his mother's sleeping pills with wine and doesn't even remember what happened.

''I'm very sorry for what happened on the plane; it's scary," Sean Simon John Joyce, 38, of London, told a federal judge in Boston, where the July 11 flight from Charlotte, N.C., to London was diverted.

US District Judge Mark L. Wolf sentenced Joyce to the five days he already spent in jail after the plane carrying 247 passengers and crew was diverted because of Joyce. Then he ordered him to leave the United States immediately and go home.

''If you had done this 10 years ago it would have been a serious crime," Wolf said. ''But to commit an offense like this after 9/11 is particularly disturbing. People are justifiably concerned about flying. When you're out of control, you not only have the potential to injure other people, but to provoke others to kill you."

Wolf said the case should also send a warning about the potential danger of taking medication that has been prescribed for someone else.

Joyce said that he was in severe pain from a sinus infection and popped one of his mother's Ambien pills, thinking it would help him sleep during the flight.

Boston lawyer Michael C. Andrews, who represented Joyce, said the self-employed painter had never taken Ambien before and didn't know that it shouldn't be mixed with alcohol and could cause side effects, including bizarre behavior, agitation, hallucinations, and amnesia.

Joyce, who was returning from a visit with his mother in Florida, was having a nice conversation with a fellow passenger one moment, then ripped off his shirt, knocked a crew member in the face, and threatened to kill passengers and himself, Andrews said.

Assistant US Attorney Timothy Q. Feeley said that after investigating the case, the government concluded that though Joyce's conduct was egregious, ''It is hard to say that he should be held fully responsible for actions that appear to be a rare and freakish reaction to medicine and alcohol."

Joyce said he was worried that US homeland security officials might not let him back into the United States again to visit his mother. The judge told Joyce that he needs to make sure he has permission before trying to enter the United States again.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.

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