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Published Friday, December 9, 2005
Fretful Passenger, Turmoil on Jet and Fatal Shots
MIAMI, Dec. 8 - Lingering near
his departure gate at Miami International Airport on Wednesday,
Rigoberto Alpizar appeared flustered and loath to make the last, brief
leg of his long journey home.
was standing up against the wall with his wife," said Alan Tirpak, a
fellow passenger on American Airlines Flight 924 to Orlando, who
spotted Mr. Alpizar next to the passageway leading to their plane
around 2 p.m. "He looked agitated - had a very nervous, agitated look
to him. As I walked past them, his wife told him, 'Let's let these
people get on first. It will be O.K.' "
Minutes later, after the
couple had found their seats at the back of the aircraft and Mr. Tirpak
had settled into his seat near first class, Mr. Alpizar ran through the
aisle toward the front of the plane, almost knocking over a flight
attendant, "trying desperately" to get off with his wife at his heels,
recalled another passenger, Natalia Cayon.
When he ignored calls from two federal marshals to stop, he was gunned down in the passageway.
The marshals said Mr. Alpizar had said he had a bomb.
said the couple had been returning from a stressful vacation. Mr.
Alpizar's wife, Anne Buechner, had been robbed in Peru, losing her
wallet, passport, laptop computer and cellphone, said her
sister-in-law, Kelley Buechner of Milwaukee.
"That really upset
Rigo," Ms. Buechner said in an interview at her home, using the
family's nickname for Mr. Alpizar, a Costa Rica native who became an
American citizen a few years ago. "Anne was robbed in Peru, and it was
very unsettling to them both."
Mr. Tirpak, flying home from a
business trip, said that as the couple waited to board Mr. Alpizar had
begun singing the refrain from the old spiritual, "Let My People Go."
Miami-Dade Police Department, which is investigating whether the
shooting was justified, said it had interviewed more than 100
passengers and crew members from Flight 924 and that preliminary
evidence suggested Mr. Alpizar had repeatedly refused to surrender. The
White House, meanwhile, defended the actions of the air marshals.
don't think anyone wants to see it come to a situation like this," said
Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman. "But these marshals appear
to have acted in a way that's consistent with the extensive training
that they have received. And we'll see what the investigation shows,
and lessons learned from that will be applied to future training and
Chief Willie Marshall, who leads the Miami-Dade criminal
investigations unit, said Mr. Alpizar had run off the plane and, while
on the passageway, reached into a bag that was "strapped to his chest."
That was when both air marshals opened fire with multiple shots, he
Chief Marshall said that homicide detectives had interviewed
Ms. Buechner throughout the night and that she had told them her
husband had received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder roughly a decade
ago. "She provided us some very valuable information and insight about
what was going on with her husband," he said. "She told us he had not
taken his medication recently."
Though Chief Marshall said the
couple had been on a vacation, a neighbor described it as a missionary
trip and said both were frequent churchgoers.
Both marshals aboard
Flight 924 were hired in 2002, said David M. Adams, a spokesman for the
Federal Air Marshal Service. One was a four-year veteran of the Border
Patrol and spoke fluent Spanish, he said, and the other had worked for
two years as a customs inspector.
Mr. Adams said he did not know
what language the air marshals had used to address Mr. Alpizar. But
another marshal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because air
marshals have been threatened with dismissal for speaking to the news
media, said he understood that instructions had been given in both
Spanish and English.
One marshal said that air marshals are
typically the first to board planes, even before the disabled and
travelers with young children, and that Wednesday's incident had
occurred before the plane door was closed. He theorized that the
marshals had probably not had a chance to observe Mr. Alpizar in the
Chief Marshall would not reveal the specifics of
his agency's interviews with people who were on the aircraft, including
whether any had said they heard Mr. Alpizar threaten that he had a
bomb. But Mark Raynor, an American Airlines pilot and local union
official in Miami, said an account he heard from the plane's captain
had supported law enforcement accounts of the shooting.
said the captain had been outside the cockpit at the time of the
shooting and witnessed it, but the first officer had been inside the
cockpit and had seen nothing.
Chief Marshall said detectives were
waiting to interview the two air marshals and hoped to do so on
Thursday. The marshals were placed on paid leave on Thursday, pending
the outcome of an internal investigation, officials said.
Buechner returned Thursday to the white ranch home she had shared with
her husband of 18 years in Maitland, outside Orlando. Relatives who had
flown to Miami drove her the roughly four hours home after she had
finished talking to detectives, Chief Marshall said.
did not speak to reporters who had gathered outside the home on a
bleak, rainy day, but her brother, Steven Buechner of Milwaukee, and
her sister, Jeanne Jentsch, of Sheboygan, Wis., emerged to read a short
statement and ask the news media to leave the family alone.
Alpizar was a loving, gentle and caring husband, uncle, brother, son
and friend," Ms. Buechner said. "He was born in Costa Rica and became a
proud American citizen several years ago. He will be sorely missed by
all who knew him."
Kelley Buechner was more forthcoming as she
talked to a reporter while drinking coffee in her Milwaukee living
room, the television news droning in the background.
She said Mr.
Alpizar had learned English after moving to Florida from Costa Rica.
She described him as a joyous, playful man who enjoyed working in his
garden and taking his niece to Disney World and the beach when she
visited every summer.
"It's not the Rigo we knew," she said. "This person who you are seeing is not our Rigo."
now, Kelley Buechner said, she had never heard that her brother-in-law
was bipolar, only that he had had "a chemical imbalance" for which he
took vitamins. She said she had never known Mr. Alpizar to stop taking
If he was bipolar, she said, it was fitting of Anne
Buechner not to discuss it with family. "She's the type who doesn't
want to burden people with her problems," Kelley Buechner said.
daughter, Ciara, 11, described Mr. Alpizar as a gentle uncle whom she
could not imagine hurting anyone. "If I caught lizards and accidentally
killed one, he would almost be kind of sad," Ciara said of her annual
visits to Florida. "He would say, 'What if that happened to you?' "