ATLANTA (AP) — A man accused of slapping a crying toddler on a plane will plead guilty, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
An email from federal prosecutors did not say what charge Joe Rickey Hundley will plead guilty to during an afternoon hearing. He faces a misdemeanor simple assault charge in the February incident.
His trial had been set to begin Thursday in federal court in Atlanta.
Hundley used a racial slur to refer to the 19-month-old boy and then hit him under the right eye as the flight from Minneapolis began its descent to the Atlanta airport, authorities have said.
Hundley, who lived in Idaho at the time, was on a Delta flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta on Feb. 8 and was seated in a window seat next to Jessica Bennett, who was sitting in the aisle seat and had her 19-month-old son on her lap, according to court filings.
At the beginning of the flight, Hundley pressed the call button and asked a flight attendant about the airline’s policy regarding “lap children,” prosecutors said in a filing. The way he asked the question made it clear he was unhappy about the child’s presence, prosecutors wrote.
As the plane descended into Atlanta, the child started crying. Hundley leaned over to Bennett and “told her to shut that (N-word) baby up,” according to a sworn statement from an FBI agent who investigated the incident. Bennett asked Hundley what he had said, and he leaned in with his face up next to hers and said it again, prosecutors said in a filing.
Hundley then slapped the child in the face, leaving a scratch below his right eye, the FBI agent’s statement says.
Hundley’s only son was in a coma in Atlanta following an insulin overdose that was the result of a suspected suicide attempt, and Hundley was flying there to meet his ex-wife so they could decide whether to take their son off life support, according to court filings.
Hundley was president of an aerospace company in Hayden, Idaho, but lost his job following enormous media coverage of the in-flight incident, his defense lawyers said in a court filing. Hundley has since moved to Leland, N.C., according to a court filing.
Bennett, who lives in Minneapolis, told a television station there that her son was traumatized and had become “apprehensive to strangers” since the flight. Hundley became increasingly obnoxious and appeared intoxicated during the flight and complained that her son was too big to sit on her lap, she said.
“He reeked of alcohol,” Bennett told KARE-TV in mid-February. “He was belligerent, and I was uncomfortable.”
Lawyers for Hundley had said in court filings that the amount of media coverage his case received was highly unusual for a misdemeanor charge and added that “it is impossible to avoid the reality that the national media has painted Mr. Hundley as a villain.”
Hundley had faced up to a year in prison if he had gone to trial and been convicted.