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Student charged in airline box cutter scare

Items apparently sat on planes more than a month

Nathaniel Heatwole faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

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Federal authorities charged a college student with a felony after he admitted planting box cutters and other items aboard Southwest Airlines jetliners. CNN's Mike Brooks reports (October 20)
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Nathaniel Heatwole

BALTIMORE, Maryland (CNN) -- Federal authorities charged a North Carolina college student with a felony Monday after he admitted planting box cutters and other items aboard Southwest Airlines jetliners that apparently were not found for more than a month.

According to an FBI affidavit, Nathaniel Heatwole, 20, put the items aboard the planes to test airport security, but U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio called the action "foolish and dangerous."

Heatwole, a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, was charged with carrying a concealed weapon aboard an aircraft.

In Heatwole's initial appearance Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Magistrate Judge Susan Gauvey ordered him released on his own recognizance but barred him from traveling by air or visiting airports while he awaits trial. He was ordered to surrender his passport.

Gauvey said Heatwole must stay at a pre-approved address on campus or at his parents' house in Damascus, Maryland, where FBI agents questioned him last week. She scheduled a preliminary hearing for November 10.

He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison if convicted.

According to the FBI affidavit, Heatwole admitted to investigators last week that he planted the items -- box cutters, bleach, strike-anywhere matches and modeling clay resembling plastic explosives -- on the aircraft in mid-September.

The affidavit said Heatwole sent e-mail messages to the Transportation Security Administration describing where he left the items.

"The writer said that the items were carried onto the aircraft concealed on his person or in his carry-on bag," the affidavit said.

"The e-mail author also stated that he was aware that his actions were against the law and that he was aware of the potential consequences for his actions, and that his actions were 'an act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public,' " the affidavit said.

"This was not a prank. This is not poor judgment," DiBiagio said. "This is a crime that had the potential to cause serious risk to the individuals on the plane, and serious risk of harm to the individual carrying these weapons -- the defendant.

"It was not a test. It was not civil action. It was not public service," DiBiagio said. "It was a very foolish and very dangerous course of action, and very, very dangerous."

The box cutters and other items were found in plastic bags in the lavatories of Southwest Airlines planes in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas, during maintenance checks Thursday.

The discoveries prompted the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security to order security inspections of all U.S. commercial airliners.

According to the affidavit, Heatwole left the suspicious items on the planes September 12 and September 14.

In his e-mail, Heatwole told government officials he had smuggled banned items aboard four other flights since February, all between Baltimore and Raleigh, North Carolina, according to the affidavit.

In two cases in April, DiBiagio said, Heatwole left the items on the aircraft.

A law enforcement official said airline workers found the items at different times but did not connect them until Heatwole e-mailed TSA officials.

CNN's Mike Brooks, Carla Crosswhite and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.

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