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Woodbury flight attendant denies plane lavatory fire charge

The disgruntled flight attendant accused of setting a fire in the rear lavatory of a jetliner forced last month to land in Fargo also was on an earlier flight that experienced a bathroom fire, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.

The revelation of the coincidence came during a hearing in which a U.S. magistrate decided to release the suspect after imposing conditions aimed at protecting the public and ensuring his future court appearances.

Before he was released, Eder H. Rojas, 19, of Woodbury, Minn., pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Fargo to a charge of willfully setting fire to a jetliner on May 7 with 72 passengers and four crew members aboard.

The Compass Airlines flight from the Twin Cities to Regina, Saskatchewan, made an emergency landing at Fargo's Hector International Airport.

Keith Reisenauer, an assistant U.S. attorney, argued that Rojas posed a risk to the public and also was a risk of fleeing, noting he is a permanent resident in the United States but a citizen of Mexico.

In his argument, Reisenauer said Rojas was onboard a flight four to six weeks earlier that also had a lavatory fire, which Rojas helped extinguish, as he had on the May 7 flight.

In a statement to the FBI, Rojas said he started the fire because he was angry about the work assignment, including the route and shift he was given that day, according to court documents.

Reisenauer said the investigation of the earlier flight, which made an emergency landing in Wisconsin, continues, but no charges have been filed in connection with the incident.

"This is a very serious offense," Reisenauer said, calling the fire on the earlier flight "quite a coincidence." Rojas has no ties to Fargo-Moorhead or the Twin Cities, and has debts of about $13,000.

"He is a serious risk of harm to the community as a whole," the prosecutor said.

Steven Light, Rojas's lawyer, argued that his client was neither a risk to public safety or of fleeing. He said Rojas has been cooperating with officials - and returned voluntarily from a vacation in Mexico when contacted by authorities after he came under suspicion.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Klein said she could not consider the earlier fire in deciding whether to release Rojas while he awaits his July 21 trial date.

She concluded the government had failed to show by "clear and convincing evidence" that there were no conditions to release Rojas safely, the burden required by law.

Rojas was released to the custody of his father, Juan Rojas, who was present at Thursday's hearing, and will stay with his family in Chicago pending trial, with numerous conditions including at least weekly contact with his pretrial services officer.

He surrendered his passport, and officials agreed he probably is on a "no-fly" list barring him from boarding commercial airliners.