This is a story about a terrible crime that you'd probably never hear about outside of the state where it happened, except for the occupation of the person who's been arrested: a pilot for American Airlines.

It's also about just how complete your trust as a passenger has to be in the competence, character, and health of the people flying your plane.

First Officer Christian Richard Martin was arrested at the airport in Louisville early Saturday and charged with three counts of murder.

Martin, who American said had been working for its wholly owned subsidiary, PSA Airlines, since January 2018, was reportedly being held without bail in a jail in Kentucky Saturday night.

The circumstances are hard to summarize. In a statement Saturday, the Kentucky attorney general said Martin was responsible for the November 2015 deaths of husband and wife Calvin and Pamela Phillips, and Edward Dansereau, all of whom were his neighbors at the time.

Although officials didn't provide a motive, news reports say that Martin, while serving in the U.S. Army, had been tried by court-martial for child sexual abuse among other charges, and that the Phillipses were scheduled to be witnesses against him.

Martin actually gave a 29-minute television interview in 2016 about their deaths, denying any involvement and saying that he'd actually expected Calvin Phillips to be the star witness for his defense.

He was later acquitted of the most serious charges in his military court-martial, although he was convicted of two counts of mishandling classified information and two counts of simple assault.

American Airlines told me Saturday that Martin had undergone a background check, which would apparently would have been handled by the Transportation Security Administration, and that there hadn't been anything that came up that would have disqualified him from being a pilot.

Here's the airline's statement.

"All of us at American Airlines and PSA Airlines are deeply saddened to have learned about these allegations from 2015. Our team was made aware of the indictment this morning after his arrest at Louisville International Airport. 

We have an unwavering commitment to the safety and security of our customers and team members, and we will provide any investigative assistance possible to law enforcement throughout their investigation."

Passengers who were in the airport at the time of Martin's arrest described a tense scene, with lots of police and the arrested pilot marched away in handcuffs from an airport gate, apparently just before he was set to be the first officer on Flight 5523 from Louisville to Charlotte.

In a mugshot widely disseminated on media sites, Martin is seen wearing his airline uniform, with the three stripes of a first officer visible on each shoulder. 

One passenger described the scene to a local television station as being like out of a movie. Other passengers took to Twitter both to describe the bizarre scene of a commercial airline pilot being arrested and accused of murder -- along with complaints about the resulting delay.

Flight 5523 took off a little under three hours late, once American was able to find a replacement first officer. 

This is truly one of the more disturbing and unusual airline-related stories I've seen. Of course, we have the presumption of innocence in criminal matters in this country.

But the idea that Martin had been flying passengers for going on a year and a half is perplexing to say the least. Even if he were 100 percent innocent, he had to have been concerned about being implicated in these killings, if for no other reason that at least one of the victims was supposed to testify at his court-martial.

All I can say is that if I were about to board a flight, and somebody told me that one of the pilots had a criminal record, and that there was any possibility at all that he might have committed murder (let alone three), I'd be very hesitant to fly.

Published on: May 12, 2019
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