'She's a hero': flight attendants on woman who alerted authorities to child sex abuse

KING 5's Lili Tan talked with a flight attendants group who gives tips to passengers if they see something that's just not right during their flight.

Flight crews say we can all learn from a Seattle pre-school teacher who took pictures of a man suspected of child sex abuse and alerted a flight attendant.

The woman, who prefers to only be identified as Christina, says she saw alarming text messages with the words “child in their underwear” during a flight from Seattle to San Jose last week. She took pictures of the man’s phone and discreetly told a flight attendant, who then alerted law enforcement.

Police boarded the plane and took Michael Kellar into custody, and then tracked down Gail Burnworth, the woman he was texting with, in Tacoma.  

“She definitely is a hero. She followed through on her hunch and took pictures and was very creative about how she got the information,” said Sherry Saehlenou, a former flight attendant.

Saehlenou, who worked for Pan Am and United for almost 30 years, is now a trainer with Airline Ambassadors International. The organization trains flight attendants to spot sex trafficking victims and perpetrators in the skies.

“Now everybody's a suspect. I walk through the airport and I see kids and parents and I think, Do they have a backpack with them? Do they look like they're happy? Do they look like they're being pulled? I just look, look, look, look,” Saehlenou said.

She says even though Christina’s case did not involve human trafficking, everyone can learn from her quick and discreet actions after she realized something was not right.

“If she had confronted the passenger directly, there could have been a scene. He could have erased the text from his phone and the evidence would have been gone,” Saehlenou said.

Airline Ambassadors says they have difficultly relaying descriptions to law enforcement without data such as photos.

“Photos are good – anything you can do. Write down a description on a piece of paper, seat number, flight number and get it to a flight attendant quietly. If you have to get up and go to the back galley and very quietly express your concerns,” Saehlenou said.

The organization also has an app that automatically sends images, videos and notes to law enforcement.

Saehlenou says this should not be in lieu of alerting flight crews immediately, as the app may be slow to get data to authorities in time to stop a person from getting off the plane. However, it is good for recording information.

“Otherwise you can say, ‘Well, there was a man in a black shirt and white pants, and I think he was about 5’6” but he’s gone now. We deplaned half an hour ago,” Saehlenou said, adding once that person deplanes, “that’s it – they’re lost.”

© 2017 KING-TV


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