April 5, 2001 -- "I was never out of control," says John Davis, the airline passenger found not guilty this week of committing aggravated assault against a gate attendant who suffered a broken neck and was left unconscious.
Responding to charges that he epitomized one of the worst incidents of "air rage," John, a 31-year-old assistant manager at a steel plant and a lieutenant in the National Guard, says he was never the aggressor. He says he was merely protecting his wife when he restrained the gate agent's arms and landed on the floor in a brawl.
"I never doubted what I did because I stayed in control and I was defending my wife," he says. "Just because I'm in the Army doesn't mean I was trained to kill."
John faced the possibility of up to 10 years in prison had he been convicted of assault on Angelo Sottile, 50 in the July 22, 1999 airport scuffle. Sottile suffered a broken neck and was comatose for five days. Though he has made a remarkable recovery, he suffers permanent physical impairment.
The Davis' Story
John and his wife Vicky were at Newark Airport en route to Orlando, Fla. for vacation with their children and extended family at Disney World. When it was time to board after a long delay, Sottile took the family's boarding passes, but there were only nine for 11 passengers. The Davis' said two of the children did not need tickets because they would sit on a parent's lap. However, FAA regulations prohibit any passenger from entering the jetway without a boarding pass.
A commotion ensued, during which Vicky noticed her 23-month-old was several feet down the jetway crying on the other side of Sottile. Vicky says she attempted to go after her little girl when Sottile stopped her, pushing her in the chest, and claiming no one may enter the jetway without a boarding pass.
She attempted to walk around Sottile, she says, who then "laid into me with his hands." John says he saw Sottile push his wife, and he became concerned.
"She didn't fall down, but he shoved her back hard enough that she stumbled back," John says. "I was a little upset that he put his hands on my wife."
He approached Sottile and said, "Don't you ever touch my wife. I don't touch my wife; nobody is going to touch my wife."
John says, "I never raised my arms up to where he would have thought I would have attacked him or where he would have had to defend himself," but he says Sottile then grabbed hold of him and squeezed his neck.
Then, John says, to "diffuse the situation," John grabbed Sottile and "had him in a bear hug … We started to struggle because he was trying to get my arms off him … He didn't say anything. He just was trying to get me off of him."
They lost their balance, says John, and they fell to the ground with John still restraining Sottile's arms, leaving Sottile to fall directly on his face.
Police arrived and John was arrested. Sottile, who was unconscious, was taken to the hospital to treat a fractured skull and broken neck.
John and Vicky say they did not appreciate their case being depicted by the media as a case of "air rage," and they believe coverage of their case was one-sided, paying no attention to Vicky's desire to reach her crying daughter when she walked passed Sottile.
"He became the poster boy for air rage," says Vicky of her husband. As for Sottile, she says, "I would never wish this upon anybody and I wish him well."
As for the Davis' trip to Disney World, if they ever attempt to go again, John and Vicky say they will drive.
Sottile was working as the gate agent, his second job that day after his 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. job at a New Jersey regional post office. When he was handed nine boarding passes for the 11 passengers in the Davis family, he asked the family to step aside.
"Just come back with the proper boarding passes," Sottile recalls telling them. Even though two of the passengers were young children who would be sitting on laps, Sottile says a boarding pass is necessary "to document that this passenger is on board."
Thereafter, Sottile says he has no recollection what happened. The next thing he remembers is "waking up at the hospital five days later after I was operated [on] already."
Because Sottile could not remember the brawl, prosecutors relied on his co-workers and other passengers during the trial. According to them, Sottile remained calm in the face of an irate passenger, Vicky, and he never shoved or even touched her. Several witnesses described John as grabbing Sottile and violently throwing him to the ground.
But after 10 prosecution witnesses painted Davis as the instigator, Davis took the stand in his own defense, and one witness corroborated the Davis family's story. And that's the version the jury believed.
Sottile, who has two children of his own, says he would not have prevented Vicky from retrieving her daughter. He says he would either have retrieved the child for her or let Vicky get her.
"Those are two things I would never do: deny a mother to retrieve a child, and push a woman. She said that I pushed her by her chest. I wouldn't touch anybody," he says.
"I was surprised and very disappointed," says Sottile of the not-guilty verdict, which he believes sends a message to passengers that they can "go to the airport, get aggravated and take their frustration [out] on the agent." As for Davis' testimony, he says, "I think it was a scenario that they created to convince the jury that they were the victims."
Prior to the injury, Sottile was an athlete, who played soccer, roller skated, cycled, skied and swam regularly. Now, he says, it is difficult for him to move his head and he suffers constant pain.
"Mr. Davis made a comment before he left that 'Now it's all over. Finally I can go back to my normal life,'" says Sottile. "I wish I can say the same thing. I have no normal life."
Sottile says one of his greatest frustrations was not the verdict, but that the Davis family never called. "Never one time," he says, " to pick up the phone to say, 'Forget about who was right, who was wrong. As a human being, I'm sorry that happened.'"