Passenger moves to empty seat and gropes woman next to him on United flight, feds say

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A man moved to an empty seat on a United Airlines flight headed to New Jersey and groped the woman next to him, federal prosecutors said. Now, he’s going to prison.

Ryan A. Manuella, 30, of Cheektowaga, New York, moved around the plane and sitting in several seats on the flight from Denver, Colorado to Newark on April 26, 2021, according to court documents.

Before sitting next to the woman, who was in a window seat, the man sat in her row in the aisle seat of a man who had gotten up to go to the bathroom, a criminal complaint filed in court says.

Manuella is accused of going through the man’s bag and taking his glasses before the man returned and told him to leave, the criminal complaint says. Then, Manuella moved to the empty middle seat next to the woman, according to the criminal complaint.

At some point, he touched the woman’s “groin and inner thigh with his hand” without her consent, the criminal complaint says.

The woman, who told Manuella to “get away from her,” immediately alerted a flight attendant, who moved Manuella to a different seat until the plane landed in Newark, according to the criminal complaint.

Manuella was sentenced to two years in prison for the assault, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey announced in a Nov. 17 news release. The charge he faced carried a maximum sentence of 10 years, according to the plea agreement.

Andrew Olesnycky, his criminal defense attorney, told McClatchy News in a statement on Nov. 17 that “as demonstrated at sentencing, this was a tragic case in which Mr. Manuella was suffering from a mental health condition at the time of the offense and was flying home to seek assistance from family members.”

Manuella previously pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit stalking on an airplane, prosecutors said.

According to prosecutors, Manuella “admitted that touching the victim caused her substantial emotional distress.”

He was initially charged with abusive sexual contact, court records show.

Olesnycky told McClatchy News ”Mr. Manuella denied committing the widely-publicized offense with which he was originally charged and his guilty plea is a more accurate reflection of what actually occurred.”

Manuella’s sentence will be followed by three years of supervised release, according to prosecutors.

United Airlines declined a request for comment from McClatchy News on Nov. 17.

Previous charges

In October 2022, Manuella was sentenced to 12-30 months in prison in connection with attempting to bribe a deputy in Nevada, according to the Record-Courier.

The alleged bribery stemmed from when Manuella was accused of trying to evade charges for a domestic battery case, the Tahoe Daily Tribune reports.

In June 2020, Douglas County, Nevada issued an alert saying Manuella was wanted on a felony arrest warrant for domestic battery with strangulation and urged the public to contact the county sheriff’s office with information on his whereabouts.

Manuella failed to appear in court in the Nevada case and evaded the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, according to the Record-Courier. He was found after he was arrested in the federal case in New Jersey.

Cheektowaga is about 10 miles northeast of Buffalo.

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