Marshals kill man at Miami Airport

Passenger claimed he had bomb

no explosives found

December 08, 2005|By KEN KAYE, MADELINE BARO DIAZ AND MCNELLY TORRES | KEN KAYE, MADELINE BARO DIAZ AND MCNELLY TORRES,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL

MIAMI -- A troubled passenger who claimed to have a bomb in his backpack was fatally shot by federal air marshals yesterday as he charged off an American Airlines jet at Miami International Airport, federal officials said.

It was the first time air marshals had shot at a passenger since the government stepped up the federal program after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, officials said.

The passenger was identified as Rigoberto Alpizar, 44, of Maitland, Fla. Federal officials said no bomb was found, and there was no apparent link to terrorism.

A neighbor said Alpizar was returning from a church mission trip to South America with his wife, Anne Buechner, a social worker.

A passenger, Mary Gardner, told WTVJ-TV that a woman traveling with Alpizar, apparently his wife, said he suffered from a severe mental disorder and had stopped taking his medicine.

Authorities could not verify that but gave this account:

Alpizar had taken an American Airlines flight from Quito, Ecuador, to Miami, arriving yesterday morning.

After clearing customs, he boarded American Flight 924, a Boeing 757 scheduled to depart from Gate D-42 at 2:18 p.m. for Orlando International Airport, near his home.

As Alpizar was getting on the jetliner, air marshals noticed that he was acting strangely and walking aggressively.

About 10 minutes before departure, still during the boarding process, Alpizar "uttered threatening words," informing nearby passengers that he had a bomb in his backpack, said Jim Bauer, special agent in charge of the federal air marshals' Miami office.

Two federal air marshals overheard Alpizar, he said.

"They came out of their cover and confronted him," Bauer said.

Alpizar attempted to flee, and some passengers reported seeing him run frantically up the plane's aisle.

The marshals chased him onto the jet bridge, connecting the plane with the terminal, and ordered him to get on the ground. Alpizar instead reached into his bag, and the agents responded with gunfire.

According to some passengers, four to five shots were fired. It wasn't immediately clear whether other passengers were on the jet bridge at the time.

Officials later went through the contents of the backpack and found no explosives, said Rick Thomas, the Transportation Security Administration's federal director at Miami International.

The Miami-Dade police bomb squad also removed all the baggage from the aircraft, laying it out on the ramp, and inspected each piece, using bomb-sniffing dogs. They found no explosives.

After the shooting, heavily armed SWAT team officers surrounded the jetliner. Police boarded the plane and told the passengers to put their hands on their heads, Gardner told the TV station.

"It was quite scary," she said. "They wouldn't let you move. They wouldn't let you get anything out of your bag."

Investigators spent hours processing the scene and talking to witnesses, which included many of the flight's 133 passengers, who had been cleared off the plane.

The flight was canceled, and the passengers were allowed to take other flights to Orlando.

Officials said the marshals had been scheduled to be on the flight as a matter of routine and had no prior knowledge that there might be trouble. The marshals are trained to shoot to kill if a passenger poses a serious threat.

As a precaution, federal air marshals around the nation were put on a high alert after the shooting, in case terrorism was involved, said Andy Apollony, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami office.

"Anytime anyone says he has a bomb on a plane, we're going to look at that," he said.

The D concourse was shut down for about 30 minutes and only one flight was delayed, Miami airport officials said. The airport resumed normal operations by about 3 p.m.

Bauer said many details of the shooting need to be sorted out. "This investigation is still under way," he said. "We don't have all the answers."

Alpizar, a U.S. citizen, was a native of Costa Rica. He met his wife, Anne, while she was an exchange student in that country. They had been married about 22 years, relatives said.

"Rigo was a very quiet guy," said Charles Baez, 33, who was Alpizar's boss at MAB Paint Store in Winter Park, Fla., until Alpizar left for a job at a Home Depot store three years ago. "It's very strange that he would ever do anything like this. ... He always seemed really normal to me."

Family members said Alpizar had never been aggressive or violent. Neighbors describe him as friendly.

"He was a nice guy, always smiling, always talkative," said neighbor Louis Gunther, who was watching Alpizar's home while he and his wife were away. "Everybody is talking about a guy I know nothing about."

Ken Kaye, Madeline Baro Diaz and McNelly Torres write for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The Orlando Sentinel contributed to this article.

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