(NBC NEWS) — Police arrested the pilot of a gyrocopter that landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday — apparently with a message to Congress to clean up money in politics. In an email delivered to Florida news organizations, including NBC station WFLA of Tampa, Douglas Mark Hughes, 61, a mailman from Ruskin, Florida, said he had been planning the Tax Day event for a long time as a vivid way to deliver his message on campaign finance reform. Police didn’t confirm the pilot’s identity, but Hughes has talked about the stunt for months on a website and to The Tampa Bay Times, which he tipped off in advance.
“No sane person would do what I’m doing,” Hughes told the Times in a video interview the newspaper provided to NBC News. “I don’t believe that the authorities are going to shoot down a 60-year-old mailman in a flying bicycle,” he said. “I’m going to give them plenty of warning — well over an hour in advance of me getting to the no-fly-zone — so that they know who I am and what I’m doing and that it’s non-violent.”
Hughes said he intended to deliver 535 letters to Washington, D.C. — one for each member of Congress. The U.S. Postal Service confirmed that Hughes works as a letter carrier, telling NBC News that the postal service’s inspector general was in contact with management about the case.
In his email, Hughes wrote: “What’s unique and newsworthy is the delivery. I’m going to land my gyro on the front lawn of the Capitol Building at the top end of the National Mall. The issue is important enough to defy the no-fly zone and risk life and limb, and my freedom in pursuit of an honest government that represents the people.”
John Jewell, 72, a tourist from Statesville, North Carolina, told NBC Washington that the craft landed hard and bounced. An officer was already there with a gun drawn.
“He didn’t get out until police officers told him to get out. He had his hands up” and was quickly led away by the police, Jewell said. “They snatched him pretty fast.”
The Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot hadn’t notified it of his plans to enter restricted airspace. It said violators face both civil and criminal penalties.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military has positioned a classified number of anti-aircraft missile systems around the Washington area. But senior defense and military officials told NBC News that the gyro-copter’s small size and slow speed wouldn’t have triggered a response. In addition, they said, no one has authority to order the launch of a missile at such a small and unidentifiable target over crowded metropolitan Washington.
Hughes took off from Gettysburg, Pa., 65 miles north of Washington, said Ben Montgomery, a reporter for The Tampa Bay Times. NBC station WGAL of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, reported that Secret Service agents were headed to Gettysburg Regional Airport in hopes that Hughes left a vehicle there.
Montgomery told NBC News that Hughes first contacted the newspaper about his plans around a year ago, but he didn’t give a window of possible flying dates until last month.
“For about 2½ years, he’s [been] planning this wild, insane act of civil disobedience to bring attention to something very mundane — campaign finance reform,” said Montgomery, who interviewed Hughes.
The Secret Service said Wednesday night that it visited the suspect’s home in October 2013 and interviewed him about his plans “to land a single manned aircraft on the grounds of the United States Capitol or the White House.” The Times reported that Hughes answered truthfully, telling the agents that he owned a gyro-copter and talked about doing “something big” to bring attention to campaign finance reform.
“Honestly, until he took off, until he made it to the Washington Monument, we didn’t know if he was going to go through with it,” Montgomery said. “That was his biggest fear all along — that he was going to walk away and not be able to do anything and look back 20 years from now and think, ‘I had a chance to make a statement about campaign finance reform, and I blew it.'”
Hughes’ 800-word email message protests corruption in government, quoting John Kerry, now the secretary of state, as saying in his farewell speech to the Senate: “The unending chase for money, I believe, threatens to steal our democracy itself.” Kerry made the remark on the Senate floor on Jan. 30, 2013.
“As a voter, I’m a member of the only political body with authority over Congress,” the letter says. “I’m demanding reform and declaring a voter’s rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson’s description of rights in the Declaration of Independence.”
It cites corporations that pay no or few taxes, the so-called revolving door of lawmakers who retire to become lobbyists, lawmakers’ focus on raising money for re-election and what it calls disproportional influence of the wealthy in crafting the nation’s laws.
Federal court records show that Hughes declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011, with an agency of the federal government, USDA Rural Development — which makes loans to promote businesses in rural areas — as the primary creditor. Hughes’ attorney in the case didn’t immediately return a call for comment.
Hughes’ message links to a website for a group called The Democracy Club, which promotes the same ideas. While Hughes’ name doesn’t appear in the site, its domain is registered in his name and address. Posts are signed “Tampadoug47,” and the email address listed to contact the owner is the same address from which Hughes sent his email.
The site repeats many of the points made in the email, decrying the corrupting influence of money on politics and the government. And one post gives authorities notice of his plan to conduct a “live flight” in Washington. It is dated Sept. 16, 2013, more than a year and a half ago, but it appears to have been updated recently.
In a biography on the site, “Tampadoug47” says he is married with four children and grew up in Santa Cruz, California, before joining the Navy.
“Let’s keep the discussion focused on reform — not me — I’m just delivering the mail,” it says.
Peter Alexander and Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News contributed to this report.