FBI van stolen during search for hijacker evidence in Laurel

Agents suspect `regular, everyday common thieves'

Terrorism Strikes America

September 21, 2001|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

FBI agents looking for Maryland clues in last week's terrorist attacks found themselves in pursuit of one of their own undercover vehicles yesterday after thieves made off with it.

The miscreants - described by a bureau spokesman as "regular, everyday common thieves," not terrorists - took an FBI van from a Laurel area that investigators have been scouring in search of information about the hijackers.

The 1992 Dodge two-toned blue conversion van was stolen about 4:30 a.m. from a Laurel location that the FBI has declined to identify.

"Everyone is back at work now, including car thieves," said Peter A. Gulotta Jr., an FBI spokesman. He said the van had no guns inside but did have a radio, which the FBI has since taken off its communications network.

"There's nothing anybody can do with the radio now," Gulotta said. "It's a useless communication device."

One of the terrorist cells that flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon was seen in several Maryland suburban locations before the attack, including a Gold's Gym in Greenbelt and at least two Laurel motels.

Laurel is also the home of Moataz al-Hallak, an Islamic cleric whom federal prosecutors interviewed yesterday about any possible relationships he may have with Osama bin Laden's followers. Al-Hallak, a resident of Crestleigh Apartments in the 9500 block of Muirkirk Road, has steadfastly denied knowing bin Laden or anything about the attacks.

The FBI has interviewed several residents of Crestleigh apartments and shown them pictures of terrorist suspects.

Gulotta said the van stolen yesterday was parked and locked and did not have keys inside. He declined to say what the van's purpose was in the area.

"We've had vehicles stolen before," he said. "This isn't a big deal."

The van was stolen shortly after a white van with a stolen Maryland license plate was seen driving nearby. Investigators believe someone from the van got out, broke into the FBI vehicle, "hot-wired" it and drove off.

Gulotta said the FBI van was last seen heading south on Interstate 295 toward Washington. It is described as having a high top, a silver running board, silver trim, and Maryland license plate 538- 941M.

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