Airport breach suspect faces federal charges

Student allowed to return to N.C.

contraband went undiscovered for 5 weeks

October 21, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Box cutters and other banned items found concealed in two Southwest Airlines jets last week were smuggled on board more than a month earlier by a young Maryland man as part of what he called an "act of civil disobedience" intended to highlight flaws in airport security, authorities said yesterday.

Nathaniel T. Heatwole, 20, of Damascus was charged in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday with carrying a concealed dangerous weapon aboard an airliner. Heatwole was released without bail and allowed to return to his college classes in North Carolina, although he was prohibited from traveling by plane.

The case touched off alarms in part because Heatwole had sent the Transportation Security Administration an e-mail last month identifying himself by name and phone number and explaining in detail what he had done - but the hidden items still went undiscovered for about five weeks.

TSA officials and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who oversees the agency, pledged yesterday to improve the system for screening and investigating potential threats and tips from the public.

Court records in Heatwole's case described an amateur airport screening sting that reached beyond the discoveries late Thursday on two Boeing 737s. An FBI affidavit said that on six occasions since February, Heatwole tried to carry prohibited items onto Southwest Airlines flights between Baltimore and Raleigh, N.C., succeeding four times.

The day after his last successful smuggling effort, on a Sept. 14 flight out of Baltimore, Heatwole tried to tell authorities what he was doing in an e-mail to the TSA's public contact center that was titled "Information Regarding 6 Recent Security Breaches." But the e-mail prompted no action until early Friday, after routine maintenance checks in Houston and New Orleans turned up small plastic bags of contraband hidden behind panels in the lavatories of the two jets.

The Sept. 15 e-mail had listed, by date and flight number, six attempts to carry items such as box cutters, matches, small bottles of bleach and modeling clay shaped to look like plastic explosives onto planes. The e-mail - which closed with "Sincerely, Nat Heatwole" and a telephone number - also acknowledged that the actions were illegal but described them as "an act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public," the FBI affidavit said.

The TSA's deputy administrator, Stephen McHale, told reporters in Baltimore yesterday that the message was one of thousands of public e-mails that pour into the agency, but he admitted: "This e-mail was not given the attention it needed."

The e-mail was turned over Friday to FBI agents, who then located Heatwole.

The case abruptly refocused attention on potential lapses in aviation security, which underwent sweeping changes after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Under one key change, passenger and baggage screening at airports is performed by federal employees, not airline workers.

After the contraband discoveries Thursday night, the Bush administration ordered an inspection of the nation's entire commercial airline fleet. That order was rescinded, though, after no additional items were discovered and federal investigators quickly began training their probe on Heatwole.

The case prompted calls from Congress yesterday for an inquiry into the training and performance of the TSA screeners.

Speaking at Duke University, Ridge said officials would review TSA protocol for how e-mail from the public is processed.

"This is not a good experience. This is a bad experience," Ridge said. "But we may learn something about it that we can apply across the country."

Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart said the company had no comment on Heatwole's arrest but praised the work of the airline maintenance workers who discovered the contraband.

"It's been business as usual since early Friday morning," Stewart said. "Hats off to the maintenance employees for discovering this and bringing it to the attention of the proper authorities."

Heatwole, who was identified as a possible suspect by early Friday, was arrested yesterday morning. He made an initial appearance later in the day before U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey in Baltimore, where the he acknowledged that he understood the charges against him and his rights. The federal charge of carrying a concealed dangerous weapon aboard a plane carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio told reporters after the hearing that four of the six attempts by Heatwole to carry banned items onto planes were successful. Two similar packages were discovered in April - one on board a plane while it was stopped in Tampa and another at the airport in Raleigh.

"All of the items placed by the defendant on the four planes have been recovered by investigators," DiBiagio said.

It was unclear yesterday what happened in the two other attempts.

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