An Arizona man has sued American Airlines for wrongfully identifying him as a suspect in an airport burglary in Texas — leading to a harrowing, 17-day stint in a New Mexico jail where he said he was forced to strip naked.
Michael Lowe was flying from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Reno, Nevada, on May 12, 2020, with a layover at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport — where someone burglarized a duty-free store, the Star-Telegram reported.
Surveillance cameras caught the suspect boarding Lowe’s flight and American Airlines reported the theft to airport police, who ordered the company to hand over the video and the passenger manifest, according to the paper.
But the carrier “departed from its established procedures” and sent police only one passenger’s data — Lowe’s, according to a lawsuit filed by an attorney for the wrongly accused Grand Canyon tour guide.
On that day, Lowe had 2-inch-long gray hair and was wearing a mask, while the surveillance footage shows a man with a buzz cut and without a mask, according to the lawsuit.
It said the police affidavit “described the suspect as a tall and thin, White or Hispanic male with a short military-style haircut, black polo shirt and blue jeans,” CBS News reported.
Despite the stark differences in the appearances, the airline identified Lowe as the suspect, leading police to issue two arrest warrants for Lowe — one for felony burglary and the other for misdemeanor criminal mischief.
As a result of the mix-up, according to the suit, Lowe was arrested more than a year later while he was on vacation in New Mexico on July 4, 2021, when someone called the cops in Tucumcari about an unrelated incident that did not involve him.
When police arrived, they took everyone’s information and noticed that Lowe had two outstanding warrants from Tarrant County, so they arrested him.
But no one told the befuddled man what crimes he was accused of committing as he was hauled to jail while insisting they had the wrong man, according to the Star-Telegram.
“Finding composure in his knowledge this was a mistake, Mr. Lowe told his friends — who were only visiting New Mexico and were not locals — not to worry, it would all get cleared up quickly. He was wrong,” according to the suit.
“His protestations were not merely falling on deaf ears, but appeared to be antagonizing the jailers,” it states.
Lowe said he was ordered to strip naked, forced to bend over and cough as he was searched for contraband before being placed into a general population quarantine pod with violent offenders amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The facility’s contempt for the health, safety and well-being of its inmates was immediately obvious” because no one wore masks, the lawsuit states, according to the Star-Telegram.
Lowe claimed in the lawsuit that he slept on the concrete floor while in a “constant state of fear of confrontation, physical abuse or sexual victimization.”
He said he saw a young inmate punched in the face — with his blood remaining smeared on the wall for several days.
“To have to sit in silence and not come to the aid of a fellow human being — particularly someone vulnerable like the younger inmate was excruciating to Mr. Lowe,” according to the suit.
After about a week behind bars, Lowe said, he had still received no information about why he was locked up.
A judge told him his only options were to waive extradition — in which New Mexico would transfer him to Texas authorities — or wait for Texas officials to pick him up.
A confused Lowe reportedly waived extradition based on the court’s suggestion, still without being apprised of the alleged crimes.
After 17 days in the slammer, he was finally released and walked several miles to a McDonald’s, where he tried to wash himself in the bathroom before being kicked out by employees, the lawsuit says.
He then took a bus ride to Flagstaff, a 12-hour trip that turned into a two-day marathon after a mechanical breakdown.
“Upon stepping through the threshold of his home, Mr. Lowe allowed himself to sob until he could no longer stand,” the lawsuit states.
He later found out from a DFW Airport police detective what charges he had faced, but could not figure out why he had been misidentified.
Making matters worse, the detective also informed Lowe that another warrant would be issued for his arrest because he had missed a court appearance.
“I’ve never heard of this fact pattern in my life or my career,” Lowe’s attorney, Scott Palmer, told the Star-Telegram. “If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone.”
After Palmer asked DFW Airport police to compare images of his client to those of the real suspect, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office finally dismissed the charges.
But the wrongful arrest has left Lowe traumatized, shaken his “identity to the core and cast a pall over his view of the world,” according to the suit.
“Mr. Lowe’s strip search, particularly the most demeaning aspects of it such as exposing his anus, seeing the young inmate get punched repeatedly in the face, the blood on the floor and wall, and the sounds of the inmate that he tried to care for all play in his head without warning and evoke the corresponding feelings of shame, fear, anger, and helplessness that he felt at the time he experienced them,” it states.
American Airlines is accused of negligence for wrongfully identifying Lowe.
“I blame American (Airlines). Without American doing what they did, (the detective) never would have issued a warrant,” Palmer told the paper.
“It all starts with the disclosure of his name and his name only,” he added.
In a statement to The Post, airline spokesman Rob Himler said: “As required by law, American cooperates with and responds to court orders for information related to possible criminal activity, and that’s what we did in this instance when we were presented with a search warrant.”