By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - An Ohio man whose hoax distress call triggered a massive U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue mission on Lake Erie must pay $489,000 in restitution, a U.S. appeals court said Tuesday.
Danik Kumar, a licensed pilot, told authorities in March 2012 he saw what he thought was a distress flare coming up from a boat as he flew over Lake Erie near Cleveland.
When asked by Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport to take a closer look, Kumar did not see a vessel, but reported seeing more flares and a fishing boat with four people onboard wearing life jackets and active strobe lights, the opinion said.
The 21-hour search included a 140-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter, three smaller rescue boats, a rescue helicopter and a Canadian CC130 Hercules airplane. A month later, the then 19-year-old freshman at Bowling Green State University admitted to making a false report.
Kumar pleaded guilty to making a false distress call. A federal judge sentenced Kumar to serve three months in prison and pay restitution of $277,000 to the U.S. Coast Guard and $212,000 to the Canadian Armed Forces.
His attorneys had argued that Kumar was liable only for the search's direct costs to the U.S. Coast Guard, estimated by a defense expert at $118,000, and no Canadian Armed Forces costs.
A panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the federal judge's rulings. One judge dissented in part, finding she would have ordered the district court to reduce the "inflated cost figure."
Kumar has served his prison term, dropped out of school and may file another appeal, attorney Edmund Searby said Tuesday.
"Like every other litigant, the government should be limited to actual losses," Searby said. "They are going to make him pay it off for decades."
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by David Bailey, Bernard Orr)