Why Luka Magnotta flew home in a military plane

Luka Rocco Magnotta was transferred to Canada on a military plane, partly because no commercial airline was willing to transport the first-degree murder suspect from Berlin.
Luka Rocco Magnotta returned to Canada via military transport from Germany, where he was arrested this month. (Montreal Police Service/Associated Press)

Luka Rocco Magnotta, handcuffed and shackled, sat quietly on a military plane bound for Canada, in part because no commercial airline was willing to transport the first-degree murder suspect from Berlin.

"We had been asking different airliners and no one was extremely happy to transport him," Montreal police Cmdr. Ian Lafrenière told CBC News.

The international transfer of Magnotta, who was accompanied on the military transport by six Montreal police officers, highlights a number of factors and challenges that law enforcement officials face when transporting a prisoner by air.

The Defence Department provided the plane on short notice, and Magnotta was flown from Germany to Quebec's Mirabel airport  on Monday, in a tightly controlled extradition operation.

In his first Montreal court appearance on Monday, Magnotta has pleaded not guilty to the multiple charges against him, including first-degree murder, in the death and dismemberment of Chinese student Jun Lin.

Magnotta appeared via video link at the Montreal courthouse Monday afternoon before Justice Lori-Renée Weitzman, in a brief hearing that lasted about three minutes.

Carole Saindon, a spokeswoman for Justice Canada, said through email that it's not uncommon for commercial airlines to refuse to transport suspects considered dangerous and that the costs of returning Magnotta back to Canada will be the responsibility of the investigating police force.

Although officials tried to secure transfer of Magnotta through commercial airlines, Lafrenière acknowledged a commercial flight might have caused other problems.

For example, if Magnotta confessed out loud to the crime, the passengers would then become witnesses, he said.

"I’d have to bring all these people to court," he said.

No inexpensive solution

While some have questioned the cost to fly Magnotta back to Canada on a military aircraft, Lafrenière said they might have had to empty out half of a commercial plane, possibly more than 100 passengers, who would then have to be reimbursed.

"It would have been extremely expensive."

As well, Magnotta needed a direct flight because touching down in another jurisdiction might have delayed the case as Magnotta could have sought asylum, Lafrenière said.

"Let’s say we had a smaller plane that left Berlin, and they had to stop in Iceland to get some gas. As soon as it touched the ground, we would have problems with authorities in Iceland because we have someone who could request the right to stay there."

Federal sources said the plane was also carrying German and Canadian officials, Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and Canada Border Services Agency employees. The plane was already in Germany when it added Magnotta as a passenger.

"We've been asking help from different partners. The reason we are so thankful to the Department of National Defence, Ministry of Public Safety, Ministry of Justice and the RCMP is because [Montreal police] have no planes, we have no resources for a case like this."  

According to Corrections Canada, chartered flights must be used for prisoners being transported over long distances, but, when necessary, may be escorted on commercial flights.

Canadian aviation security regulations set out a number of rules about transferring prisoners.

Peace officers may carry unloaded firearms and at least two escort officers must be with a prisoner who is deemed a maximum risk, according to the regulations.

Medium- and minimum-risk prisoners need only one escort officer (and no more than two officers when deemed a minimum risk).

The officer must also remain with the prisoner at all times, search the suspect before boarding and search the area surrounding the aircraft seat assigned to the suspect for weapons. The officer must also carry restraining devices.

Alcohol cannot be provided to or consumed by a prisoner or the officer. Also, the prisoner cannot be seated adjacent to an exit on an aircraft.

Protocol for how prisoners are treated on a plane may vary from airline to airline.

Lafrenière said that based on the transportation protocol of the military aircraft, no one guarding Magnotta was carrying a handgun.

But he said Magnotta had "all the rights to get food, drink" and go to the washroom.

U.S. security regulations tighter

Ed Martelle, a spokesman for American Airlines, said that company allows prisoners to be transported, but they must be escorted by armed law enforcement agents or armed members of the military.

But prisoners do not get bathroom breaks, aren't served food or beverages and must remain in their seats for the whole flight, he said.

As well, only one person considered "maximum risk" can be in a cabin at any time, Martelle said. Two minimum risk passengers can be on board at the same time.

Many prisoner transfers in the U.S. are handled by the U.S. Marshals Service Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, (JPATS).

Also known as "Con Air," it is considered one of the largest transporters of prisoners in the world.

According to its website, JPATS, the only government-operated, regularly scheduled passenger airline in the U.S., handles about 977 requests every day.

It operates a fleet of aircraft that "moves prisoners over long distances more economically and with higher security than commercial airlines."

With files from The Canadian Press