ST. LOUIS – A flight student accused of stealing a plane from Canada told authorities he was trying to commit suicide by U.S. fighter jet, but investigators were trying to learn more about the man and how serious the plan might have been.
Adam Dylan Leon, 31, was in custody Wednesday after being accused of stealing the plane from his flight school in Ontario Monday and leading fighter jets on an erratic path across the Midwest before landing on a rural road in Missouri.
Leon was charged Tuesday with transportation of stolen property and illegal entry. The seven-hour flight prompted a brief evacuation of the Wisconsin Capitol and warnings to commercial aircraft over Chicago and other cities, but terrorism was not believed to be a motive.
According to the federal complaint, Leon told the FBI that he flew the plane into the U.S. expecting to be shot down by military aircraft. The complaint said Leon also told the FBI he "has not felt like himself lately" and he recently was being treated by a psychiatrist.
But authorities and witnesses who encountered Leon shortly after his landing described a friendly man who smiled and appeared relieved to be safe on the ground.
Leon was jailed in St. Louis and did not yet have an attorney. A federal detention hearing was set for Friday.
A background check of the Thunder Bay, Ontario, man showed no connection to terrorism, FBI agent John Gillies said.
Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Leon was born in Turkey with the name Yavuz Berke, moved to Canada and became a naturalized citizen last year.
He would face up to 10 years in prison if convicted and would serve any sentence in the U.S. before being deported, U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway said.
The plane was reported stolen Monday afternoon from Confederation College Flight School at Thunder Bay International Airport in Ontario. The college said in a statement that the flight was unauthorized but that Leon was enrolled in its program.
The plane was intercepted by F-16 fighters from the Wisconsin National Guard after crossing into the state near the Michigan state line.
The pilot flew erratically and didn't communicate with the fighter pilots, said Mike Kucharek, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
The pilot acknowledged seeing the F-16s but didn't obey their nonverbal commands to follow them, Kucharek said in a telephone interview from Colorado Springs, Colo.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Trooper Justin Watson, who arrested Leon, said the plane was almost out of fuel when it landed on an abandoned stretch of road near the small town of Ellsinore.
From there, Leon apparently hitched a ride to a small convenience store. Watson told The Associated Press that he was surprised at Leon's response when he approached him in the store to arrest him: "His statement was: He was expecting us and he was the person we were looking for. I expected him to deny any involvement."
During the approximately 30-mile drive to troop headquarters, Leon volunteered that he had flown into the United States because he thought he would be shot down, Watson said.
"Basically, his statement was he wanted to end it all," Watson said.
But Leon was smiling by the time he was arrested and seemed relieved to be alive, Watson said.
"He was actually in a little better spirits than I thought he would be for a person who was suicidal," Watson said. "He seemed to want to talk and for people to know why he had done what he had done."
He also was hungry. Troopers ordered pizza for him after he said he had gone 24 hours without eating, Watson said.
Marilyn Simmons, owner of the convenience store, worried about terrorism when a relative called to tell her about the plane.
"My husband went and got his guns and gave me one," Simmons said.
She then called the store and told workers to watch out. Sure enough, Leon showed up after a young man who stopped to offer help gave him a ride.
"He gave him $2 and dropped him off," Simmons said. "He asked for the bathroom, then got a Gatorade and sat down at the table. He was there when they came and got him. He was smiling when he went out."
Confederation College said Leon had access to Cessna training planes and security at the facility was not compromised. It said Leon was readmitted to the program in the fall after failing in 2007, and that he passed his cross-country solo flying test last week.
Fellow students were shocked and surprised, said Patricia Lang, president of the college.
"His faculty speak very highly of him," she said. "Everyone likes him. He was a very good student. He was very engaged in class. He asked great questions so he was an all-around good student."