Slater's attorney, Howard Turman, said his client had been drawn into a fight between two female passengers over space in the overhead bins as the Pittsburgh-to-New York flight was awaiting takeoff. During the argument, Slater was struck in the head with a luggage bag.
When JetBlue Flight 1052 arrived at the terminal in New York, one of the women who had been asked to gate-check her bag was enraged that it wasn't immediately available, Turman said.
"The woman was outraged and cursed him out a great deal," Turman said. "At some point, I think he just wanted to avoid conflict with her."
JetBlue said the passengers on that flight were never in any danger. However, prosecutors said Slater's actions could have been deadly if ground crew workers had been hit by the emergency slide.
With an obvious bruise on his forehead and a smirk on his face, Slater was lead into a Queens courtroom Tuesday afternoon to face charges of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, and trespassing -- counts that carry a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Hours later, Slater was released from jail after posting $2,500 bail.
JetBlue spokesman Mateo Lleras said Slater had been removed from duty pending an investigation. Prosecutors said no criminal allegations had been made against the passenger.On a Facebook fan page, Slater has become a folk hero as thousands applaud his stand. By early Tuesday afternoon, more than 20,000 people had declared themselves supporters of Slater, and the number was growing by thousands every hour. At least one fan set up a legal fund on his behalf.
Residents in Slater's hometown of Thousand Oaks say they are shocked by his alleged actions, but say he has been under a lot of pressure. His mother is battling terminal cancer and just 2 years ago his father, a pilot for American Airlines, died from Lou Gehrig's Disease.
"That's not Steve's nature. Steve is a very conscientious, engaging, compassionate type of guy. He's articulate, very sociable. I've never seen any display of that kind of conduct before," said neighbor Ron Franz.
"He's always been very friendly, a very nice guy, very polite. I'm sure he was greatly provoked," said neighbor Mark Cher.
Slater's mother Diane, a former flight attendant, defended her son's actions during an interview out her Thousand Oaks home on Tuesday. She said she understands why he snapped and believes the disobedient passenger should be facing charges.
"I think he just had a very small meltdown, and I think he deserves to be able to have that meltdown if you saw the egg on his head where he got smacked," said Diane Slater. "I would have snapped too. In fact, I probably would have snapped more than he did."
Even his own ex-wife is defending him.
"I find it more offensive that this passenger isn't being put on trial," said Slater's ex-wife, Cynthia Susanne.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.