Terror on the Tarmac
If the FBI wants the support of the American people when it comes to fighting terror in the skies, it needs to treat them with respect. Annie Jacobsen has the harrowing tale of what happened when a Good Samaritan was transformed into a terror suspect. Required reading for Thanksgiving travelers.
November 20, 2007 - 2:55 am
Jerry Wynn, of Jacksonville, Florida, considers himself a good American citizen. He believes the War on Terror to be real and important and he’s willing to accept certain inconveniences when he flies on commercial planes. He’s got two adorable kids whom he coaches at sports on the weekend. He thinks of their safety, and the safety of his wife, whenever any of them fly.
But what happened to Jerry Wynn on American Eagle Flight 4518 on September 21,
2007 has forced him to consider what the War on Terror means to his own, individual citizen’s rights. He wants others to know it could just as easily happen to them. And if it did, what would you do?
“To this day, I can’t get an answer. Not a letter, not a phone call, not from anyone at the FBI.”
The last thing airline Jerry Wynn did before American Eagle Flight 4518 took off from Jacksonville to Raleigh-Durham, was take a photograph of himself with his cell phone and send it to his wife and two young kids. “Bye, I love you,” he wrote in an accompanying text message.
The wife and kids were on a separate flight, out to California, to see grandparents there. It was 7:10 p.m. on a Friday night. Wynn, a field tech supervisor for a heavy equipment dealership in Jacksonville, was headed to North Carolina to help his brother move house.
Wynn had a funny feeling about the commuter flight he was about to take because there was an odd-acting man sitting two rows ahead of him. Wynn had observed this man earlier at the airport, once in the TSA security line, and once in the men’s room adjacent to the gate. Both times, Wynn explained, “the guy was acting strange. He was rough looking, kind of like a hippie traveler, a 60-year old white male. He hadn’t shaven in a week. He was acting suspicious, he was real antsy. He had on linen clothing and house slippers-not normal shoes for a flight. Both times, I thought to myself, ‘I hope that guy is not on my flight.’”
But as it turned out, the man was on Wynn’s flight. And Wynn noticed the man’s behavior a third time, as the 27 passengers for Flight 4518 were boarding the aircraft. “The plane was so small that the [jet bridge] didn’t reach the gate. We had to walk out on the tarmac and up some stairs to get on the plane. The [flight crew] did a courtesy check, so passengers didn’t have to carry their personal carry-on [bags] onto the plane. Well, the strange man had a large backpack and he insisted on carrying it on to the plane himself,” Wynn explained.
The flight left Jacksonville without event. But once the aircraft was in the air, a series of strange events occurred. “The guy went back and forth into the bathroom several times. Then he went into the overheard bin, pulled down his backpack, pulled out a poncho and put that on. The poncho had a hood and he flipped that up. Then he reached into the backpack again, took out a scarf and wrapped that around his head so it covered his mouth area. Now, you couldn’t see his face. You could only see his eyes.”
Jerry looked around the plane and made eye-contact with a few other passengers. “This girl sitting behind me gives me the look like something’s wrong. I nod. The masked guy sits back down and I think to myself, this doesn’t feel right,” Jerry explained.
Wynn decided to moves seats so he could observe the man from across the aisle. “I was more curious than anything else at that point,” Wynn said. “But then the man got up, wearing the mask thing, and pulled something out of his pocket which was really odd-looking. It was six inches long and three or four inches wide. It was narrowed down at the handle. It was greenish-tan. I suppose, looking back, someone could have mistaken it for a grenade.”
Which, FBI Special Agent Newsom Summerlin said in an interview, is exactly what happened. “The flight attendant believed this passenger was in possession of some kind of improvised explosive device,” Summerlin said. The flight attendant notified the captain of the aircraft who, according to my interview with TSA Spokesman Christopher White, requested to make an emergency landing. What Jerry Wynn didn’t know was that the flight attendant identified Jerry Wynn as the accomplice to the man with the alleged explosive device. The Good Samaritan who had been attempting to keep an eye on the strange passenger immediately became a terror suspect.
The Department of Homeland Security was now on high alert. Jerry Wynn only knew what was happening on the plane. He continued to watch the man. “The man began rubbing his head with the unidentified object. Other passengers began to get uncomfortable,” Wynn explained. “I was looking at the people in front of me and behind me, everybody was watching the man in the hood. The woman directly behind me whispered to me, ‘That’s strange.’”
Suddenly, the plane began a rapid descent. “We were descending real fast and I mean real fast,” Wynn said. “No, ‘fasten your seatbelts,’ no ‘flight attendants prepare for landing,’ nothing! Next thing I knew, bam! There’s this bump and we’re on the runway!”
On the ground in Herndon, Virginia, the Homeland Security machine was in full swing. TSAs Command and Control center, the Transportation Security Operations Center (TSOC) was coordinating with at least four federal agencies. “TSOC is run by TSA and coordinates with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Defense (DoD) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). TSOC also communicates with the FBI,” TSA Spokesman Christopher White clarified in our interview. “The pilot of Flight 4518 had requested to make an emergency landing. We [i.e. TSA] coordinated in the air. The FBI took jurisdiction on the ground,” said White.
Jerry Wynn explained what was happening on the plane: “The plane taxied down the runway for sometime. We kept taxi-ing until finally, we were way out in the woods. There was not a word over the P.A. Not a word from the stewardess or the pilot. Not a thing. I looked out the windows, it was really dark. We were in the woods! I spoke to a passenger behind me, who told me she flew the route a lot. She said, ‘this is really strange.’ Finally, the pilot did a U-Turn and said, ‘We’re next up to taxi in.’ It was absurd. You could tell he was lying. We were so far out in the woods!”
According to TSA spokesman Christopher White, American Eagle Flight 4518 “sat on the remote area of the runway for about an hour.” According to Wynn, after about forty minutes, the pilot announced the delay was caused by a security issue inside the airport. Wynn telephoned his brother who was waiting for him inside the airport. Wynn’s brother said that according to airport officials, the security issue involved Wynn’s plane. Wynn called his wife. “I told her I didn’t know what was going on, but I was going to help in anyway I could. When I said good-bye, it was one of those tough moments. I thought, this is for real. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to any of us on that plane.”
What follows is Jerry Wynn’s exclusive, first person account of what happened next Raleigh-Durham Airport:
“All of a sudden, boom! There were spotlights all around the plane! FBI, SWAT, teams of men with their rifles pointed at the plane. We were surrounded. I thought, this is it. A little girl behind me screamed. I thought, it’s the guy in the mask! If he makes a move, what do I do? Do I grab him? As I was thinking this, the door of the plane opens up. One guy, I think he was an FBI agent, came on board and said, ‘we have a security issue. Come out one at a time.’ This little girl was crying and I could see behind me, the mother was trying to calm her daughter down. As I made my way down the aisle and turned left out the door of the plane, I thought, Thank God I’m alive. Suddenly, all the guns were on me! It was surreal. They were all shouting at me, screaming, ‘Move and we’ll blow you fu—– head off!” I thought, Oh, my God, they think it’s me!
The next thing I knew, I was face down on the tarmac. They’d cuffed me and I was lying there with my pants down. My shirt was up. I looked up and I saw four guys with their guns at me. I was being held at gunpoint. Their rifle butts were shaking and they were screaming, screaming, ‘Don’t move or we will blow you fu—– head off!’
I looked to my right and one guy had a pistol to my head. All the guns were shaking. They were screaming so many four letter words at me, finally I just said, ‘Please don’t shoot me on accident.’ I kept saying that. I thought, if I sneeze, they’re going to shoot me. They had me on the ground, cuffed, pants down, for I don’t know how long. Ten more minutes, twenty more minutes? The cuffs hurt. My pants were down, my socks and shoes were gone. My shirt was ripped and up off my back. The guns were on me, the rifle butts were so close to my head. My arms were pinched back, jacked-up behind me because the cuffs are super tight. They were shouting, shouting, ‘One move and I’ll blow your f—— head off!’ The guys with the rifles kept shouting that they were going to kill me if I moved.
Suddenly, I looked up and I saw two Suburbans coming down the tarmac. One was black and one was silver. I tried to make a joke. ‘Don’t put me in the black Suburban, please’ I said. ‘In the movies, if you get into the black suburban, you don’t come back….’ No one said a word.
They picked me up and dragged me toward the car. I was still surrounded and the guns were all still at my head. They had me under both armpits and they shoved me in the car. I was in the middle of the seat, hunched over. My arms were numb and tingling. I looked around. There were tons of people on cell phones. Everyone was talking to somebody. Everybody had somebody they were communicating with on the phone.
A convoy of vehicles took me to the airport. I had no shoes on. I felt like a terrorist. I felt awful. I’d been handcuffed for what seemed like forever. No one told me what was going on. In the airport, they walked me into this very small room. It was about 7′ x 10′. There was a desk and three chairs and the mirror. The infamous one-way glass.
They started asking me all kinds of questions. ‘How do you know that guy?’ They keep saying and I said I don’t know him. They kept asking that question again and again. It was surreal. There were so many strange questions, I can’t remember them. They had pictures of my children-pictures I keep in my wallet. They were showing me pictures of my son in his football uniform and my daughter in her soccer uniform: ‘Who are these people,’ they asked me. I said ‘my children.’ They wanted to know when their birthdays were. I could barely remember anything. Whatever I said, they didn’t believe me. ‘How do you know the guy on the plane?’
They kept asking over and over again.
One of the FBI agents slid me this piece of paper. ‘These are your Miranda rights,’ he said. ‘Sign it.’ So I asked him, ‘Am I under arrest?’ He didn’t say anything. No smile, no nothing. He handed me a pen. He said, ‘we are going to move your handcuffs so you can sign. If you make any false move, it will be the last move you make.’
I signed the paper and then it was back to the questions. I told and re-told the story. Back to the pictures of my kids. ‘How do you know these people?’ That kind of thing. It went on like this until 2:00 a.m. My arms hurt. My wrists ached. I was shoeless. Nervous. My jaw locked up. When I tried stretching my jaw. one of them said, “What are you doing?’ and waved his gun.
Finally they left. They were gone for 30 minutes. Then they came back. They didn’t say much. Then one just said, ‘all right, stand up.’ They took off the handcuffs and then they just left the room. I sat there for ten or fifteen more minutes. Finally, the same two FBI agents came back. ‘You can go,’ one of them said.
I said, ‘I can go? I can’t go. I don’t have my shoes, my wallet or my phone.’ One of them said, ‘Oh, okay.’ So they went and came back. ‘Here’s your stuff,’ they told me. There was a policeman with them. One of the FBI guys said, ‘This officer will talk you to your brother.’ That was it. No, ‘we’re sorry for threatening your life.’ No explanation about why they did what they did. No nothing. All they said was, ‘This officer will take you to your brother.’
The thing that really gets me is that no one told me why I went through what I went through for that whole time. Still to this day, I can’t get an answer. Not a letter, not a phone call, not from anyone at the FBI. They almost killed me. That’s how I see it. When I was there coming off that plane-coming down those stairs with all those rifle barrels pointed at me-if I’d have flinched, if I’d have cramped, if I’d have tripped as I was being pulled down those stairs? They would have shot me. Do you know how many times they told me that, for sure?”
When he finished his account, Wynn was asked “if the FBI had explained to you what happened, and why it happened, would you be talking to me, a reporter, about any of this?”
“Absolutely not,” Wynn said. “If they’d have just told me why I went through what I went through, if they’d have said ‘we’re sorry, it was all a mistake,’ I would have understood. To be honest, all they had to do was buy me a beer. Sit me down and say, ‘we’re sorry we did what we did.’ This is because I understand there is a war on terror going on. I’m a good citizen. That’s why I changed seats on the plane, so I could keep an eye on that [masked] man, who did what he did. Am I going to think twice before I ever try and do my part again? Am I ever going to fly again? No, I doubt it. I’m not going to because from my perspective, you do that and you could almost die. I did not feel like a citizen, I felt like a terrorist. Honestly, I feel like I’m lucky I’m not dead.”
Special Agent Newsom Summerlin, the lead FBI agent handling press about the incident, was asked about Wynn’s account. All Summerlin would say was, “The FBI considers the matter resolved.”
Summerlin was informed that Jerry Wynn disagrees. That until he gets some answers, Jerry Wynn doesn’t consider the matter resolved.
“That’s all the FBI has to say,” Special Agent Summerlin said.
What would you have to say if this happened to you?
Six federal agents, two local law enforcement agents, and three airport officials were interviewed for this report, to no avail.
One month after his experience, Jerry Wynn contacted the ACLU for legal assistance.
Here’s what the ACLU had to say: “We have reviewed your complaint and regret to inform you that the ACLU of Florida declines to offer you legal assistance. Due to our limited resources, we cannot take all civil liberties cases brought to our attention, and we must concentrate our resources where they are most needed.”
Annie Jacobsen writes about aviation security and homeland security for a variety of newspapers, magazines and blogs. She is the author of the book, %%AMAZON=1890626627 Terror in The Skies, Why 9/11 Could Happen Again%%.