Green Bay Press Gazette, WI
Federal case will go to jury today
By Andy Nelesen
A federal jury in Green Bay is expected to begin deciding today whether a 62-year-old retired tech school teacher is guilty of assault for grabbing a female airport screener’s breasts at the Outagamie County Regional Airport in September 2004.
Phyllis Dintenfass of Appleton faces one federal count of assault of a federal employee for allegedly shoving a Transportation Security Administration supervisor before grabbing the female agent’s breasts to protest what Dintenfass felt was an invasive search. Her trial began Monday.
Federal prosecutors contend Phyllis Dintenfass’ actions were criminal. She claims self-defense. If convicted, Dintenfass faces a year in federal prison and up to a $100,000 fine.
In testimony before U.S. District Court Judge William Griesbach, TSA screening supervisor Anita Gostisha said she saw Dintenfass activate the metal detectors at Outagamie’s security checkpoint and heard Dintenfass assert that it was the bobby pins and barrettes in her hair that triggered the alarm. After taking Dintenfass to the secondary screening area, Gostisha said she used a handheld metal detector to wand Dintenfass’ head and body, examining areas that caused the device to alert.
Gostisha, a screening supervisor for three years, said she was following protocol when she hung up the wand and then performed a “limited pat-down search,” which included touching Dintenfass on the sides and back.
Gostisha said she was searching the front of Dintenfass’ body — using the back of her hands to search the area underneath Dintenfass’ breasts — when Dintenfass lashed out.
“She said ‘How would you like it if I did that to you?’ and slammed me against the wall,” Gostisha testified. “She came at me and grabbed my breasts and squeezed them with firm pressure … squeezed them a couple of times.”
Gostisha testified that she moved away from the partition and said, “That’s enough,” and directed Dintenfass to sit down. She then alerted her supervisor and an Outagamie County Sheriff’s deputy. Dintenfass was issued a disorderly conduct citation and allowed to board her plane. The citation was later voided and the case became a federal matter.
Dintenfass does not deny that she put her hands on the TSA agent. It was only after the invasiveness of the search shocked her and her protests fell on deaf ears that she acted. She has been through the screening procedure before on previous trips because of her penchant for wearing her hair up in pins and combs, so it was no surprise she was pulled aside for a more detailed inspection.
But when the agent began touching her breasts, enough was enough, she said.
“I said, ‘What are you doing? No one’s done that to me before,’” Dintenfass said. “And she kept going … for what felt like an interminably long time. It seemed to go on and on in my mind.
“She was feeling me up.”
Dintenfass testified that she reacted out of instinct.
“I said, ‘I don’t like you feeling me up.’” Dintenfass testified. “She said, ‘I’m not feeling you up.’ I told her, ‘My husband’s been feeling me up for 40 years. I know what that feels like when someone’s feeling me up.’
“I felt violated. … She wouldn’t stop.”
Dintenfass denied that she shoved Gostisha, but admitted to putting her hands on the agent’s breasts.
“I was mortified that I had done that,” she said. “I was reacting to what felt like an absolute invasion of my body.
“I knew nothing had buzzed, so I had no idea why she was touching my breasts.”
The agent may have stepped back in response to the move, which would have caused her to bump into the partition, Dintenfass said.
“I absolutely did not push her,” Dintenfass said.
After Dintenfass got off the witness stand, a parade of character witnesses followed, including friends and former co-workers.
Sharon Fenlon, president of the Appleton School Board, testified that she has known Dintenfass for 25 years. She and Dintenfass shared an interest in art, textiles and education issues. Dintenfass’ reputation as honest and peaceful was without reproach, she said.
Ron Toshner of Greenville testified that he and Dintenfass began their careers together as instructors at Fox Valley Technical College.
He joined the others in describing Dintenfass as an honest and peaceful person.
The case resumes today with lawyers expected to make closing arguments and the jury to receive instructions on the law. Lawyers are also expected to argue to Griesbach whether jurors should be given an instruction to consider self-defense as a legal defense for her actions.
The 12-person jury — equally split by gender — is expected to begin deliberations this afternoon.