ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An all-expense-paid trip to China for a modeling competition turned into a nightmare detour through an Anchorage jail for two Michigan twin sisters convicted of disrupting a flight and sentenced this week in federal court.
With members of the affected United Airlines flight crew on hand Thursday, Crystal Mikula, 22, of Buckley, Mich., pleaded guilty to simple assault, a misdemeanor, on board a flight from San Francisco to Shanghai on April 19.
She was sentenced to two years probation and a $500 fine.
The sentence was far below what Federal District Court Judge John Sedwick handed Wednesday to her identical twin, Cynthia Mikula, also of Buckley, convicted of interfering with a flight crew, a felony. Cynthia was sentenced to five years probation and ordered to pay $86,774.92 in restitution.
Sedwick sentenced both sisters to 231 hours of community service, one hour for every other passenger. Sedwick banned both women from flying on commercial airlines while they are on probation, except for their flight home from Alaska.
Assistant Federal Defender Mary Geddes urged Sedwick to sentence Crystal Mikula to a year of supervision with no ban on flying. She laid most of the blame for the ruckus on Cynthia Mikula.
''If her sister hadn't been aboard that airplane, it would have gone on to Shanghai,'' Geddes said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charlie Brown sought five years of probation.
''Today what you're hearing is, 'It's all the sister's fault.' ... No it's not,'' Brown said. Witnesses noticed little difference in the conduct of the sisters other than the striking of flight attendants, Brown said.
Geddes said the trip was to be the highlight of the twins lives so far. After finishing high school, the twins enrolled in modeling classes and their parents took out a $10,000 second mortgage to pay to enter a California modeling competition, where the Mikulas won the all-expense trip to Shanghai.
About four hours into the overseas flight, after drinks and an in-flight movie, Cynthia started moaning and crying, and accused her sister of not loving her. Geddes said Crystal tried to calm her sister and twice moved away from her on the aircraft, seeking a phone to call their mother.
When crew members attempted to intervene in the argument, Cynthia Mikula struck a female flight attendant in the face, bloodying her nose, and hit one of the captains.
The twins were moved to business class seats. Flight attendant Steve Kriske used his own credit card to call the women's mother and both talked to her. At the conclusion of the call, Geddes said, Cynthia threw the phone and struck a flight attendant in the face.
Geddes said crew members decided to place Cynthia in restraints and four male crew members held her down. When she screamed for help, Geddes said, Crystal attempted to reach her and assaulted a flight attendant by climbing on his back, choking and scratching him.
''She was responding to the cries of her sister, 'Help me, they're hurting me,''' Geddes said.
Until that point, Geddes said, Crystal had done nothing worthy of bringing charges.
The crew diverted the jet to Anchorage 30 minutes later when Cynthia, in plastic handcuffs, remained on the verge of being out of control, Geddes said. Crystal was not restrained with handcuffs.
Brown said both sisters demonstrated an ''almost incomprehensible lack of empathy'' for other passengers, behaving in a manner unacceptable in the air or on the ground.
Geddes said her client spent 41 days in jail and completed treatment for alcohol abuse. She said the family declined offers of financial assistance from media outlets that would have expedited her pretrial release.
Members of the flight crew, including Capt. Jim Dunn, urged the twins to get help through counseling and the justice system. Dunn said he wanted to hear from them in the future.
Flight attendant Kriske said there were clear instances when Crystal Mikula was trying to make the situation aboard the jet better. But he expressed skepticism that the sister even now grasp the gravity of their actions while in their ''altered states.''
Flight crew members embraced the sisters after the sentencing.
The $86,774.92 restitution to be paid by Cynthia Mikula represents the amount the diversion cost United Airlines. The company tallied up flight crew overtime, ground crew costs, landing fees, 20,000 gallons of jet fuel, plus food and hotel accommodations for crew members and the 231 remaining passengers.
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