By JEFF KAROUB, Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) – Thickly wrapped in newspaper and duct tape, several packages stowed in a man’s luggage as he passed through Detroit Metropolitan Airport security last month had local and federal law enforcement officers believing they’d detected an explosive. As the terminal was partially evacuated and a bomb squad called, officers’ suspicions grew because the man became agitated, smelled of alcohol and couldn’t initially say exactly what was in his bag.
The items turned out to be an electric Big Ben-style clock, a desktop wave machine and a digital picture frame, according to Wayne County Airport Authority police reports obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The passenger, John Wheeler, 66, told authorities he couldn’t immediately recall each item because he had been packing for two months for a move to the Philippines.
The reports offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into law enforcement officers’ take-no-chances response to what they viewed as a threat on a major airport on particularly high alert since a Nigerian man tried to blow up a packed jetliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear on Christmas Day 2009, minutes before his Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight landed. He was sentenced last year to life in prison.
In another incident last month, a Saudi man was arrested for allegedly lying about why he was traveling with a pressure cooker and for carrying a passport with missing pages. Two pressure cookers were used in the Boston Marathon bombings. The man said he was bringing the appliance at the request of his nephew, who has told the AP he requested the gift because he wanted to cook traditional lamb recipes.
“Just because it turns out to be innocuous items doesn’t mean the response by the law enforcement officials wasn’t appropriate – you need to respond with an abundance of caution,” said airport authority spokesman Michael Conway.
The Transportation Security Administration says the incident involving the wrapped items delayed 16 flights and affected more than 2,000 passengers. Although local and federal officials and aviation experts aren’t aware of hard data ranking such disruptions or evacuations by airport, Conway said Detroit has earned its right to be on edge.
“We are the airport where somebody did attempt to come in with a fabricated bomb in their underpants with every intention of exploding a wide-body aircraft,” he said.
Wheeler, who authorities said had no prior criminal record, was charged with interfering with the orderly flow of passengers, a misdemeanor violation of an airport ordinance. He did not appear for a May 6 hearing and a bench warrant was issued. Two Detroit telephone numbers listed for Wheeler were disconnected, and there was no answer at a number listed for him in Florida.
According to airport police, Wheeler arrived at the Transportation Security Administration screening line at 5:28 a.m. on April 1, a busy morning in which the airport was filled with spring-break travelers.
After agents screened and rescreened his belongings, a TSA manager approached three airport police officers and said he wanted them to see something that looked like an improvised explosive device, the reports said. The trio went to the screening area, and, airport police Cpl. Leon Sanford later wrote, “I saw something wrapped in black tape with a large wire sticking out of it. It looked like a pipe bomb.”
Screening halted. Police ordered the evacuation of the checkpoint and then the surrounding area. Soon police cleared traffic to the terminal’s upper level, and all of curbside check-in and baggage claim. K-9 and bomb squad units were called and Wheeler’s luggage was taken to a fire department training site.
According to Sanford’s report, he approached Wheeler and asked what the items were. Wheeler said, “Nothing. Why?” Sanford wrote that Wheeler became agitated and the officer “could smell a strong odor of intoxicants coming from his breath.” Wheeler said he earlier had a couple of beers with his brother, who dropped him off at the airport. He later said it was one beer a few hours earlier.
Another police report said Wheeler, without prompting, began describing his packing method: “I wrapped the items in newspaper so they would not get broken. Then I wrapped them in tape to keep them secure,” he told police.
As questioning continued, the report said, Wheeler recalled the items included the wave machine and photo frame but he couldn’t remember what else. He later said the third item was an electric Big Ben-style clock bought in London.
“He was starting to insist that we just open the property and look at it,” Sanford wrote. “I explained to him that the proper protocol had to be followed and that it could not be avoided. He then retorted sharply, `Oh, now you are just trying to be wise guy.”‘
Wheeler was taken to another building for booking, and he told officers he was flying to the Philippines to see family and “had no plans to return to the United States,” according to a report. “He stated the only reason he bought a round-trip ticket is because the airlines force you to when you are flying out of the country.”
Sanford wrote that Wheeler told him “he would never do anything to hurt this country, that he loved this country.”
Airport authority officials say Wheeler ultimately was cleared to fly, but they don’t know if he boarded a plane.
TSA spokesman Jonathan Allen declined to comment about the specifics of the case when asked if the agency considered the airport’s response appropriate, but directed the AP to an agency blog post highlighting the incident as reason for passenger awareness.
“Passengers should be cognizant of how items appear when they are X-rayed,” Allen said.
Michael Boyd, an aviation analyst based in Evergreen, Colo., said false alarms are simply “the cost of doing business today” for airports.
“Anything that looks semi-threatening, you go after it,” Boyd said. “It’s good, it’s positive and it’s to be expected with today’s security.”
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