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An Irvine man who has been charged with assaulting a flight attendant mid-air last week said he recently had brain surgery and was protecting his head when the victim hurt herself during an altercation, according to the criminal complaint filed against him.

The incident occurred Oct. 27 aboard American Airlines Flight 976 heading to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana from New York City, but was diverted to Denver after the alleged assault.

Brian Hsu, 20, who was on the plane with his mother, faces charges of interference with a flight crew and assault within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, according to the Department of Justice.

The female flight attendant was apparently punched in the face repeatedly and suffered a fractured nose.

A witness told an FBI agent during the investigation that the victim asked Hsu to stay away from the bathroom on the plane and the defendant subsequently punched her in the face with enough force that she hit the lavatory door, an affidavit filed to support the criminal complaint states.

The defendant was asked by another flight attendant to return to his seat, and after not complying at first, he eventually sat down before others restrained him using duct tape and plastic bonds.

Other witnesses commented on Hsu’s “odd behavior” before and after the attack. They indicated he got up, walked around and stretched “an unusual amount.” One witness indicated that he was “squirming” his hands after being restrained and heard Hsu ask “did you see what happened” and that the victim “came at me.”

The defendant later told the agent that he was returning home after having brain surgery in Rhode Island to reconstruct parts of his skull, the complaint reads.

He claimed that he was injured last fall when he was assaulted in New York City. He said he suffered psychological damage from the injury, including ringing in his ears, nausea, dizziness and loss of balance.

He described being sensitive to sound, experiencing “mental fog,” and indicated that his parents think he “acts differently than he used to,” according to the complaint.

Hsu said that he got up to use the bathroom and was stretching in the corridor when he accidentally bumped the victim with his hand or arm. He alleged that the victim became agitated and “began swinging at Hsu’s head with her hands, but not her fists,” according to the complaint.

He said he was scared because any impact to his head could cause him injury or even death. To prevent the victim from striking his head, Hsu said he backed up toward his seat and raised his hands in defense, but that the victim “ charged at him and hit her nose against the palm of his right hand.”

He said he did not see the victim holding her nose after the impact, nor did he see blood. He also claimed not to recall how hard the impact was. He told the agent that he could not have struck the victim with his fist because he injured his right hand during a football injury weeks before, preventing him from making a fist with his hand.

After hearing an announcement on the plane that a flight attendant had been assaulted, and other people restraining him in his seat, Hsu said other passengers “berated [him] and did not want
to hear his side of the story,” the complaint states.

Hsu’s mother, who was also interviewed after the incident, told the agent that her son did indeed have surgery in Rhode Island and had become easily angered and needed to stretch often because he had trouble sitting still. She said that Hsu is afraid of people touching his head and that he fractured his finger during a recent workout and cannot make a fist.

The victim was taken off the plane in a stretcher and transported to hospital where she stayed overnight. She was told she had a concussion and a fractured nose. She told the agent she still has pain in her nose, head and sinuses.

In an interview days later, she said that she was in the corridor when she felt something strike her. She turned around and asked Hsu if he was OK, but he did not apologize and instead said he needed to use the restroom. The victim told him he needed to return to his seat because the pilot had turned on the “fasten seatbelt sign.”

The victim said Hsu then raised his arms as if he was going to stretch but brought his elbow down and struck her on the head, according to the complaint.

She then took a defense posture, and while Hsu backed down at first, she said he charged at her, his arms flailing.

Another flight attendant came to help, and Hsu seemed to back down again, but he then charged at the victim again and hit her in the face with a closed fist, she alleged.

The victim was bleeding, felt “dazed” and “stunned” but reported the assault to her higher ups on the plane. She said the victim’s mother then approached her and said “he didn’t mean it.”

Hsu appeared in District Court for the Central District of California Monday and was released on a $10,000 bond, officials said. He is scheduled to appear in federal court in Denver Nov. 15.

Upon being released from custody Monday, Hsu told KTLA that he did not hit the flight attendant in the face. After being asked what happened he responded “no comment at this time.” Later when asked if he wanted to say anything to the victim, he responded, “I love America,” before getting into the back of an awaiting vehicle.

In a statement released after the incident, American Airlines said the passenger “will never be allowed to travel with American Airlines in the future, but we will not be satisfied until he has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

“We are outraged by the reports of what took place on board,” the airline’s statement read. “Acts of violence against our team members will not be tolerated by American Airlines. We have engaged local law enforcement and the FBI and we are working with them to ensure they have all the information they need.”

Reports of unruly behavior on planes, including violence against crew members, have increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The Federal Aviation Administration said 923 investigations have been initiated this year into violations of regulations or federal laws. The number is up from 183 last year and 146 in 2019.