CLEARWATER BEACH - Rev. Herb Freitag and his wife, Lorraine, had enjoyed a relaxful vacation in Maine and New Hampshire. Little did they know when they headed home last week that their vacation would end on a tense note. Their Delta flight out of Portland on July 6 was uneventful. They arrived at La Guardia, where they later boarded Delta Flight 1850. It was some 10-15 minutes before their scheduled arrival in Tampa at 11:03 p.m. that Rev. Freitag, who is senior minister at Chapel-By-The-Sea, called upon his long ago experience as a member of the wrestling team at Fairleigh Dickinson University to help subdue a disruptive passenger. It all began when a young man who, after refusing a flight attendant's request to take his seat, ran full speed down the aisle from the back of the plane to the cockpit door. As the man, later identified as Neftali Alexander Lai-Mendez, slammed his body repeatedly into the reinforced door, four of the passengers took action. Gordon Montoya, a businessman from Brandon, was the first to reach the young man.
Montoya, 52, grabbed the man's feet and was grappling with him when Rev. Freitag, 64, lent his assistance and helped wrestle him to the ground. Montoya, as it turns out, was also a former wrestler who had competed during his high school years. After the takedown of Lai-Mendez, who was now on his back on the floor, Montoya sat on top of him, holding one of his legs in the air. Passengers James Abbott of St. Petersburg and Adam Davisburg of New York state also helped keep him down. The Clearwater Beach pastor said everything happened so fast. He estimated that the entire incident lasted about 45 seconds.
It was not known at the time that Lai-Mendez, who was wearing a New York Yankees ballcap, was a 24-year-old disturbed Army military police officer who had recently served in Iraq and was headed to Tampa for medical treatment. He was due to be discharged from the Army this week. His brother, Robert Cordero-Mendez, 19, was accompanying him on the flight and attempted to explain the situation. The men did not release their hold on Lai-Mendez, however, until they turned him over to airport police who boarded the plane upon touchdown at Tampa International.
"He never said a word the whole time," Rev. Freitag recalled on Monday. What are his thoughts about the incident? "I'm happy it wasn't more serious," he stated. "People weren't hurt and the plane landed safely. Everyone who (later) learned the man is disturbed just hopes he will get the help he needs."
Will the former college wrestler be hesitant about boarding a plane again? No, he is already making plans to fly to a church conference. As Joe Rogan, host of TV's "Fear Factor" would say, "Apparently fear is not a factor with him."
Return to Home Page
Return to Current Edition