WELCOME TO TERRORLAND -- MOHAMED ATTA & THE 9-11 COVER-UP IN FLORIDA
Two hours before terrorist hijackers began crashing airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, four Arab men in a white van pulled up to the guard gate of the hotel where George W. Bush was spending the night, the Colony Beach Resort Hotel on Longboat Key in Sarasota, Florida, and launched an attempt to assassinate the President of the United States.
The attempted assassination had very likely been coordinated by terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta, just then passing through airport security 1000 miles away in Portland, Maine.
Several days before Bush's arrival in Sarasota, according to eye-witnesses, Atta had been meeting with co-conspirators at a Holiday Inn barely two miles down the beach from the hotel where Bush would be staying.
Two hours before the assassination attempt was launched, Secret Service agents guarding the President in Sarasota received a dramatic predawn warning of an imminent threat.
That two years later Americans have been told nothing about these events illustrates both how seriously U.S. officials took the attempt, and how far they have been willing to go to keep a tight rein on information. Whoever said "the first casualty of war is the truth," said a mouthful.
We discovered the assassination attempt while sifting through local news coverage in the aftermath of the attack, acting on a friend's cynical dictum that the only real news you get when something big happens is in the first 24 hours, before the cover up is put in place.
We had been scrutinizing news accounts from the confusing early hours and days following the 9/11 attack. We were looking for big news stories that inexplicably and immediately died, without explanation or follow up.
It's called 'suppressed news,' and we hoped to discover a few nuggets. But we didn't just find nuggets. We found boulders.
Amazing things were happening in Sarasota during the pre-dawn hours before September 11th, events which we discovered had surfaced briefly in news reports before disappearing, never to be heard from again.
We did our job by piecing together two separate news reports from Sarasota -- one a local television newscast, the other a town newspaper -- that together lead to the inescapable conclusion that during the intrigue which was swirling in Sarasota before dawn that day, terrorists were looking to kill George W Bush.
The first report stated that a pre-dawn warning of imminent attack had been delivered to President Bush's Secret Service detail in Sarasota, and aired on the Sarasota ABC affiliate's evening newscast.
"The warning of imminent danger was delivered in the middle of the night to Secret Service agents in Sarasota guarding the President," reported Monica Yadov of ABC's Sarasota affiliate, "and it came exactly four hours and thirty-eight minutes before Mohamed Atta flew an airliner into the World Trade Center."
The second story is a chilling eyewitness account of the attempted assassination in progress. It came from the Longboat Observer, which literally covers the waterfront in upscale Longboat Key, where Bush spent the night before the attack.
"At about 6 a.m. September 11, Longboat Key Fire Marshall Carroll Mooneyhan was at the front desk of the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort as Bush prepared for his morning jog. From that vantage point, Mooneyhan overheard a strange exchange between a Colony receptionist and security guard," the paper reported.
"A van occupied by men of Middle Eastern descent had pulled up to the Colony stating they had a 'poolside' interview with the president, Mooneyhan said."
Neither of the two reporters knew of the other's report. But both had covered different angles of the same story ... a concerted attempt by four Arab men posing as journalists to gain access to President George W. Bush at 6 a.m. on the morning of September 11th, for the purpose of ending his life.
Here's how it went down:
Zainlabdeen Omer, a Middle Eastern native residing in Sarasota, contacted Sarasota police in the middle of the night to tell them a friend of his, who had made violent threats against President Bush in the past, had just shown up -- and unexpectedly -- in Sarasota, ABC's Yadov reported.
The man who Omer warned authorities about was identified in the Sarasota police report of the incident only as 'Ghandi.'
Omer said 'Ghandi' told him he was in town to get a friend out of jail ... But Omer had heard 'Ghandi' make violent remarks about Bush in the past, and since the President was in Sarasota at the same time, Omer feared his friend might be in Sarasota to kill the President.
The warning was initially given to the Sarasota police, who called in the Secret Service. Within hours Secret Service agents were searching an apartment in Sarasota.
Turns out, Omer was right. They arrested three men, all from the Sudan, and took them in for interrogation. The questioning lasted, according to one of the three, Fathel Rahman Orner, for ten hours.
"The police came and arrested me and three other people," Fathel Rahman explained in the ABC interview. Rahman said he couldn't help the Secret Service.
"So you know nothing about the President coming to Sarasota?" asked Yadov.
"I know nothing," he replied. "I know nothing about Osama bin Laden, nothing like that."
Moving quickly, the Secret Service next swooped down on a local beauty supply store, whose owner had been fingered by Omer as being a close associate of 'Ghandi.'
The owner of a liquor store next door watched as agents raided the place. "Very shortly after the World Trade Center attack, we noticed four or five agents swarm the building next door," explained Greg Breslich, owner of North Trail Liquors in Sarasota.
"We always thought there was something strange about that establishment. We saw a lot of people go in there, but never saw anyone come out carrying any beauty supplies."
Agents detained and questioned the owner of the beauty supply store, a Muslim named Hakim. Hakim, too, had disturbing information for the Secret Service about Ghandi, reported Yadov.
He told agents Ghandi was a member of the SPLA, or Sudanese People's Liberation Army, a Christian and animist guerrilla group fighting the fundamentalist Muslim government in Sudan.
Whoa! Sarasota, Florida, seems a little far afield for sub-Saharan freedom fighters. What could they have been doing there? Pricing retirement real estate?
Maybe they had been receiving covert training in the swamps, which is a southwest Florida tradition. Bay of Pigs invaders stormed the beaches here practicing for Cuba, a local Sheriff told us.
And why would operatives of a guerrilla organization fighting against a government of Islamic fundamentalists closely allied with Osama bin Laden want to assassinate, of all people, George W. Bush? It didn't make sense.
But once you admit the possibility that there exist sub-Saharan Christian animist guerrilla fighters in whitebread Sarasota, Florida, anything seems possible.
We were able to confirm much of ABC reporter Monica Yadov's account. The arrest of the Sudanese men made national wire service reports on the day after the attack. The Associated Press said the Secret Service interrogated four Sudanese men in Sarasota after getting a tip that the men intended to harm President Bush during his visit to the city.
But the men taken into custody had been released, and the incident found to be "unrelated" to the attacks, said the AP story. The Secret Service also dismissed the report, saying the warning was "coincidental" to September 11.
The Special Agent in charge of the Presidential detail in Sarasota told reporter Yadov that the President was never in any danger, and the connection to the SPLA, and the warning that the Secret Service got before the terrorist attack, was all "just a coincidence."
For good measure the FBI weighed in, pooh-poohing the story to reporters asking about the significance of the warning. In the vague and wary way government spokespeople seem to have patented, FBI spokesman Sarah Oakes said, "Nationwide the FBI has received over 200,000 such tips, with more than 5,000 of the tips coming into the Tampa office alone."
The explanation would have to do. No one would have anything more to say. Another mystery averted by your friends in public service. When your credibility as an agency has already been shredded, as the FBI's has, there's not much left to lose. Their denial made no sense, but it served to stop further investigation into the predawn warning.
Stopped it on a dime.
Until reporter Yadov went looking for Hakim, the owner of the raided beauty supply store, and discovered that Hakim's beauty supply store wasn't there anymore. Hakim was missing, too. He left in something of a hurry after being released by the Secret Service, Yadov learned. Gone. No one knew where.
And Hakim wasn't the only witness to disappear in Sarasota. Zainelabdeen Omer was missing too. The man whose warning of imminent havoc had been right on the money was now unavailable for comment. He quit his job and left town, just ahead of reporter's questions.
Hakim and Omer joined the swelling ranks of 9/11 Missing Witnesses. We like to think of them as just all being on vacation together somewhere, maybe on an Island of Lost Witnesses.
Some of Omer's friends could still be found, however.
One told Yadov: "Omer got in a lot of trouble with the law. All I know is he can't leave town."
"So you think he's still somewhere around?" she asked.
On camera, Omer's friend shrugs and says, "Should be. If he's still alive."
It's a chilling moment. If Omer's still alive? Why wouldn't he be?
Where are the missing Sudanese men today?
The Secret Service doesn't know. Yadov checked with the INS. Was Omer being detained? The INS wouldn't say.
Their responses sounded a little cavalier, especially from people who take very seriously their job of protecting the President, unless by being part of a deliberate cover-up they thought they were protecting the President. But two years later?
But if it was a cover-up, how could you tell? One sure way, we figured, would be to look for signs of witness intimidation. If authorities were actively discouraging people with firsthand knowledge from talking, then you can be pretty sure that something's rotten in the state of Denmark. Or Florida.
Was there evidence of witness intimidation? Yes ... The eyewitness to the incident at the front gate of Bush's hotel who came forward, Carroll Mooneyhan, was a Longboat Key Fire Marshal. He had been milling in the lobby of the Colony Beach Resort at 6 a.m. along with Secret Service agents waiting to accompany Bush on his morning run.
When reporter Shay Sullivan of the Longboat Observer interviewed him about what he'd seen, Mooneyhan probably didn't know enough to dummy up. He was local. He was honest. He was a fireman. So he talked.
And even though reporter Sullivan knew nothing about Yadov's corroborating report of an earlier predawn warning, the savvy reporter immediately suspected that Mooneyhan had witnessed a foiled assassination attempt.
Mooneyhan told the Observer that he had been waiting at the front desk in the lobby of the hotel when a white van arrived at the hotel's guard gate carrying four Middle Eastern men.
The men in the van identified themselves as a television news crew with an appointment with the President, claiming they had a 'poolside' interview scheduled with Bush after his morning run. They even asked for a Secret Service agent by name, Mooneyhan said.
Secret Service agents at the guard station told the men to contact the President's public relations office in Washington D.C. to schedule an interview. They turned the four Arab men away, but they let them go. "In light of the attacks, Mooneyhan wonders if what he witnessed is related to the events of September 11," reported the paper.
So did the FBI. Sort of.
"That's very strange," an unnamed agent with the Sarasota field office of the FBI said, when informed what happened. Sullivan wrote, "He said he would direct agents to look into the matter."
The FBI's blase reaction wasn't enough to put Sullivan off the story, however. He noticed that the ploy used to attempt to gain access to Bush had been used, and successfully, just two days earlier by bin Laden operatives to murder the Taliban's biggest foe.
Two Arab men pretending to be journalists arrived to conduct an interview with charismatic Northern Alliance leader Shah Massoud on September 9th in Afghanistan. They used the ruse to gain an audience with the legendary guerrilla leader, who fought against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan in the 1980's, and was now leading the resistance against Taliban rule.
Massoud Khalili, a Northern Alliance leader who was there, said:
"Shah Massoud said, 'O.K. Let's film."'
Then the 'journalists' blew themselves up, killing Massoud, One of the two 'journalists' detonated a bomb hidden inside their television camera, killing their intended target and themselves.
The blast almost claimed his life as well, said Khalili. "I was screaming and then again I saw the noise from the camera. Then I saw the hand of Commander pushing me back and I was unconscious. I'll never forget the face of my friend stained with blood," he told CNN.
The Northern Alliance immediately said it had evidence that Massoud's assassination was the work of bin Laden ... but not just Osama bin Laden. Many, like Massoud's companion Khalili, thought bin Laden had outside help as well.
"One thing we believe is that it was a global network of Osama plus some others who killed Commander Massoud. I believe they also said it was a global network of Qaeda and others who brought this catastrophe in New York," Khalili said.
There's that 'global network' again.
Based on eyewitness accounts, the Sarasota assassination attempt was probably coordinated by Mohamed Atta himself, reported the Observer: "If three eyewitnesses are correct, terrorist hijacker Mohamed Atta came to the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites -- Longboat Key September 7th -- the day the media announced President George W. Bush would be coming to the area September 11 to speak at a Sarasota school. Atta may have been there to meet a second hijacker, Marwan Al-Shehhi."
A waiter at the Holiday Inn, Frank Boyal, said while he was there Atta didn't stray far from the bar, the paper reported. Atta and his companion had both ordered the hotel's $18.95 "Surf and Turf" buffet.
"They were just here," he said. "I remember the face."
When we visited the Holiday Inn Hotel, the bartender at the hotel pub, Darlene Sieverts, confirmed for us that Atta had most definitely been there ... "Mohamed Atta sat right on that bar stool you're sitting on now, drinking rum and coke," she stated. "But I didn't have any real interaction with him. A bartender can tell when a customer doesn't want to talk, and he didn't."
"About fifteen minutes after he arrived he was joined by a second man, who indicated that he didn't speak English when I asked what he'd like to drink," she continued.
"The second man motioned for Atta to intercede, but instead of ordering something for him Atta asked for the bill. He left a $20 bill to cover a $4 tab."
Seiverts recollections were echoed by other hotel employees, who remembered seeing Atta dining in the hotel restaurant with a second man.
In Sarasota, just a few days before the attack, Mark Bean, the hotel's assistant food and beverage director, identified the second man as Marwan Al-Shehhi.
One need only compare what we've just learned about the fateful morning of September 11th with what was reported to have happened to begin to understand how complete the 9/11 information embargo has been.
The AP story, for example, made no mention of a van filled with Middle Eastern men attempting to gain access to the President as Bush was leaving for his morning jog.
They also neglected to report the predawn warning of an imminent attack. Instead, media accounts of that morning at the Colony Beach Resort sound much like this one, from the London Telegraph: "Bush awoke in the magnificent surroundings of the Colony Beach Resort on Longboat Key ... on the morning of his 234th day in office, with a light, warm breeze slipping in from the ocean. After breakfast, Bush led his Secret Service crew on a four-mile run around the nearby Sarasota golf links," reported the paper.
"On his return to the Colony, the President showered, changed into a lightweight, dark blue suit, and, still glowing from the morning's exertion, sat down for the first routine intelligence briefing of the day. It was 8 am."
We'll stop there, because it doesn't get any better. Although we learn that Mr. Bush was wearing a lightweight dark blue suit they spare us the detail that he had been a target for assassination.
In light of what happened in Sarasota that morning, the true beginning of what we know as the 9/11 Attack was probably Shah Massoud's assassination in Afghanistan on September 9th. Had the white van with four Arab men, the 'TV crew,' gotten close enough to Bush, his fate would have been the same as Massoud's.
That same morning, about 8 a.m., a Longboat Key resident standing on the Sarasota bay front waiting to watch the Presidential motorcade go by noticed something unusual for Sarasota ... a dilapidated van.
Inside the van, he told police, were "two men of Middle Eastern descent screaming out the windows 'Down with Bush' and raising their fists in the air."
What the shocked Sarasota resident probably witnessed was the frustration of men stopped tantalizingly short of eternal access to more virgins than you can shake a stick at.
When we finally reached him by phone, Carroll Mooneyhan, the fire captain who saw the launch of a quickly hushed-up assassination attempt on the life of George W Bush, told us:
"I was visited by the CIA and the Secret Service after 9/11. I have a career to think about. I have to be careful what I say."
And that was the last we heard from him.
If people 'with careers to think about' were being pressured into keeping silent about something as serious as an assassination attempt on the President, what else might authorities be covering up?
Try: "almost anything." And then delete "almost."
When we began interviewing eyewitnesses to Mohamed Atta's sojourn in Florida -- what historians call primary sources -- we were soon in the midst of a major 'anomaly' in the official story. There was a problem in the FBI's timeline about when Atta first arrived in the U.S. to set up his terrorist HQ.
The FBI states Mohamed Atta landed in America on June 3, 2000.
We interviewed a good dozen credible eyewitnesses who could tell them they were wrong. Didn't they know that?
They did. The logic is inescapable ... if we knew it, we had to figure that they knew it as well. After all, they had a massive 4,000- man investigation team. They could put 3,999 more investigators on the street than we could.
They interviewed the same people we did, and heard the same things we heard. So the FBI was not wrong on Atta's timeline by accident. They were not making what could be considered honest mistakes. They were lying.
Things were worse than we'd imagined. How much worse became clear when we began to compare the truth as we found it with the official story of Atta's activities and movements.
From a number of sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, we compiled the reported milestones in the FBI's chronology of Atta's time in the U.S. Let's start with the official story as recounted in Time magazine, (Oct. 8, 01):
"On June 3, 2000, he (Atta) arrived in Newark, N.J., from Prague with a six-month tourist visa. Within a month, Atta and Al-Shehhi signed up for flight training at Huffman Aviation International in Venice, Fla."
That's simple enough. What the FBI says happened next was reported in the Sept. 23, 2001 Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel:
"South Florida became Atta's home for almost 14 months. Al-Shehhi traveled with him. They lived in Nokomis (next to Venice) a southwest Florida suburb, as they learned to fly small airplanes at Huffman Aviation from July to November 2000. That December, they apparently moved to southeast Florida as Atta shelled out about $1,500 for him and Al-Shehhi to gain six hours in a jet simulator at SimCenter in Opa-Locka."
Okay, we think we've got the FBI's story, which goes like this: Atta arrives in the U.S. in early June, begins flight training at Huffman in Venice in July, then leaves Venice in December and moves gratefully on to the jazzier precincts of the Miami area.
It is a simple, straight-forward timeline. Just for safety's sake, let's hear it one more time, in the sworn testimony of Huffman Aviation's Rudi Dekkers -- the colorful and controversial Dutch national whose numerous post-9/11 TV appearances made him a minor celebrity -- before the House Judiciary Committee.
"On July 1st, 2000," Dekkers testified, reading from a prepared statement, "Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi arrived at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida to inquire about taking flying lessons. "
"After a description was given about our flying school, they said they would let us know what they would decide about the flying lessons. On July 3rd, 2000, Atta and Al-Shehhi came back to Huffman Aviation to sign up for lessons" said Dekkers.
"On December 24th, 2000, Atta and Al-Shehhi rented a Warrior from Huffman Aviation for a flight ... one to two days later Atta and Al-Shehhi returned to Huffman Aviation to make final payments on their outstanding bills. Because they were not taking any more flying lessons, they were asked to leave the facility due to their bad attitudes and not being liked by staff and clients alike. Huffman never heard about or from them again."
The official story, we can say with confidence, is that after getting their pilot licenses Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi left Venice forever by Christmas of the year 2000.
In the remaining eight months and 11 days before the attack, the FBI's chronology leans heavily, though not exclusively, on Miami-area locations:
Atta is living in an apartment in Hollywood, and then another in Coral Springs. He abandons a stalled private plane on a runway in Miami, purchases global-positioning devices in Fort Lauderdale, trains on a sophisticated full-motion simulator in Opa-Locka. He rents single-engine planes in Belle Glade, at the Palm Beach County Airport, and in Gwinnett County, Georgia.
He consults a pharmacist in Delray Beach, hangs out at Shuckum's Raw Bar in Hollywood, gets a traffic ticket in Broward County, and has frequent meetings in Paterson, New Jersey.
He flies commercial from Fort Lauderdale to Boston. From Boston to New York, to Prague, back to Newark, from Newark to Fort Lauderdale, then to Madrid from Miami, to Las Vegas and back.
While far from comprehensive, this run-down clearly illustrates the official story about Atta, which is that after December of 2000, he is never in Venice. When the FBI speaks of him, the word "Venice" does not pass their lips.
Two weeks after the attack the FBI released photographs and brief bios of the hijackers along with a "request for the public's assistance in obtaining more information about these individuals."
Their bio on Atta omits any reference to Venice: "Mohamed Atta. Possible Egyptian national. Date of birth used: Sept. 1, 1968. Possible residences in Hollywood, Fla.; Coral Springs, Fla.; and Hamburg, Germany. Believed to be a pilot."
This is beyond strange. The six months Atta was in Venice comprises roughly half of the time he was in the U.S., according to the FBI's own calculations. Yet there's no mention of Venice in his official FBI bio.
If you saw Atta in a supermarket in Ft. Lauderdale the FBI would like to hear from you, since they list Atta living in Hollywood and Coral Springs residences.
But if you were calling the FBI with a hot tip on seeing Atta huddled in conference with somebody in Venice, apparently they already knew all they needed to know about that, thanks.
The FBI's attempt at misdirection is obvious. This is a big clue that whatever they're covering up about Venice is big enough for them to doctor Atta's entire story to hide it.
All the FBI would have to do to learn that their chronology -- the basic tool of investigators -- was off by miles would have been to talk to some witnesses in Venice, as we did, or even just read the local newspapers. Because the local newspapers of record in Venice and environs had simply done their job, and reported what credible eyewitnesses told them about their encounters with the terrorists.
They didn't know they were in areas deemed 'sensitive.' They were like the fire chief on Longboat Key who'd blurted out what he'd seen because he wasn't 'clued-in' enough to keep his mouth shut. They were local, thank god.
By interviewing dozens of eyewitnesses -- often before the FBI got to them -- these newspapers performed an invaluable public service. They reported the eyewitness testimony of people who had first-hand knowledge about Mohamed Atta and his terrorist cadre.
For that, future historians will be grateful, even as we are.
Worse for the FBl, these witnesses stories corroborate each other in ways that definitely give them the ring of truth. Unwittingly, local people saw things that gave them possession of what's been called 'inconvenient knowledge.'
What is inconvenient knowledge? Here's a quick example: if you had been in Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was shot, and happened to notice Lee Harvey Oswald standing right beside you on the curb chomping on a chili dog while the motorcade went by, you would have seen something tremendously inconvenient. Even if you didn't want it, you would have inconvenient knowledge.
Just seeing something, though, only constitutes 'possession.' What they treat far more seriously is seeing something and then talking, to, say, a reporter. This is 'possession with intent to distribute,' a more serious crime. Under certain circumstances, it can occasionally prove physically harmful.
But consider this: if your inconvenient knowledge contains information hot enough to affect the destiny of the Western World, you could be in trouble even if you don't talk. Because how do "they" know you won't someday snigger inappropriately at the mention of Lee Harvey Oswald, and drop a hint. Something like, "That Oswald boy sure does love his chili dog!"
At a bare minimum you would find it necessary to refrain at all costs from ever mentioning the name 'Oswald' in a sentence containing the words 'chili dog.'
But inconvenient knowledge is nothing to make jokes about. Just ask those already in our story who unwittingly came into possession of some. Life can change real fast, as Zainlabeen Omer, and his buddy Hakim, wherever they are, undoubtedly understand.
Things can happen.
When Mohamed Atta and his sidekick Marwan came to Venice, they first lived with a Huffman Aviation employee named Charlie Voss. They'd needed someplace to stay when they got into town, Voss told reporters.
Later, flight school owner Rudi Dekkers testified to Congress that he gave the terrorist duo Charlie's number, an act of 'kindness' for which Charlie apparently still holds a grudge.
Voss gave a stilted statement to reporters on his doorstep on the day after the attack, that sounds like something a Justice Dept. attorney wrote down for him and made him repeat until he had it memorized.
"FBI agents informed me there were two individuals that might have crossed our paths who were students at Huffman Aviation, my employer, and the FBI told me they were involved in yesterday's tragedy," Voss said.
The 'two individuals' who 'might have crossed Charlie's path,' Atta and Marwan, lived with the Vosses for just a week, and quickly wore out their welcome. They were asked to move when the Vosses grew tired of remarks they were making which Charlie's wife Drucilla characterized as "arrogant" and "sarcastic."
"The ringleader, Atta, he creeped me out," Drucilla told reporters. "I made them leave."
Atta and Al-Shehhi then signed a 6-momh lease with Steve Kona, a member of the Venice Fire Department, renting a small two-bedroom house on Laurel Drive in Nokomis just north of Venice, where they lived from July through December, 2000.
Since the attack the house has become something of a tourist attraction. To avoid any identification with the hijackers who once lived there, the current occupants have an American flag flying outside all day. Every day.
In an interview six months after the attack, landlord Kona told us, "I just maintained the grass over there in the summer; they actually dealt with the rental agency for the rent each month, but I would see them occasionally when I was over there mowing."
Like many who knew them, Kona spoke of liking the bear-like Marwan, often described as being friendly and accessible ...
"Actually, Atta kept kind of secluded. His cousin, I talked to him a couple of times. He was friendly, but Mohamed Atta, no, I never spoke with him the six months he was there."
Kona was clear about the time period during which Atta and Marwan had rented from him: the same July through December time period when they are said to have been at Huffman Avi atlon.
"They rented it just for that six months, about the same amount of time they were here for their pilots training. And then they left," Kona said.
According to the FBI, that's just about the whole Venice story. A week with the Vosses, then six months in a pink two-bedroom house in Nokomis. Over and out. On to Miami, right?
Not so fast.
Charlie Voss and Steve Kona were not Mohamed Atta's only two landlords in Venice. The terrorists had a third landlord there as well. And when this individual stepped forward alarm bells must have gone off all over FBI Headquarters in Washington.
Start with this account in the Venice Gondolier three days after the attack, headlined: "FLIGHT SCHOOL MAY HAVE CHARGED SUSPECTED TERRORISTS EXTRA RENT."
The gist of the account was that Huffman Aviation had rented an apartment for $550 a month, and then turned around and sublet it to students at an outrageously high markup.
It was hard to muster indignation over the terrorists being victims of rent-gouging. But the story also contained information which matter-of-factly destroys pretty much the entire edifice of the FBI's official story.
"Two men suspected of terrorizing the heart of America this week resided in a Venice apartment earlier this year," said the paper.
"While attending flight school at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Mohamed Atta, 33, and Marwan Al-Shehhi, 23, lived with four other Middle Eastern students near Venice Airport at Sandpiper Apartments. The six Middle Eastern men shared a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in unit 26, said Charles Grapentine, manager of the apartments."
Atta had a third landlord in Venice. That same day the Charlotte Sun-Herald reported essentially the same thing.
This was one landlord too many for the FBI's official story.
And it had the same basic effect on the FBI that reports of a 'second gunman' had 40 years earlier. But alas for the official story, and the FBI, there was a list of witnesses -- an inconveniently long one -- who knew first-hand that the terrorist ringleader had lived at the Sandpiper Apartments.
For one, there's Amanda herself, after we'd located her. "I found the Sandpiper," she told us, "met Charlie, thought he was really nice. Mohamed used a check to pay for it. The name on the check was Mohamed Arajaki, the name he said was his. The FBI told me they found bank accounts of his all over under numerous different names."
Then there was the couple that managed the Sandpiper Apartments. Charley Grapentine and his wife Paula never had any doubt who their tenant had been. When she saw it on TV, Paula immediately recognized Atta, said the Gondolier:
"Paula Grapentine immediately recognized the face of a suspected terrorist who may have trained for the World Trade Center attacks at Huffman Aviation in Venice. He was her next-door neighbor. They lived at the Sandpiper Apartments, unit 26, in Venice until earlier this year."
Even the postman confirmed the identification, as did the tenants next door to Atta and Amanda's apartment. None doubted that the terrorist ringleader had been in their midst. As it turns out, Mohamed and Amanda had been anything but an inconspicuous duo.
Atta lived at the Sandpiper 'earlier this year,' reported the Gondolier, meaning of course earlier than the September 14, 2001 date of the story. Maybe you see the problem.
At the time these eyewitnesses say Atta was at the Sandpiper, the FBI says he was no longer in Venice. The Grapentines, and the other Sandpiper Apartment eye-witnesses, were about to discover the consequences of possessing 'inconvenient knowledge.'
Although at least two other newspapers covered the story, reporter Earle Kimel made it his own in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, owned by the New York Times. In the aftermath of 9/11, Kimel had understandably focused on the local angle. The terrorists in Venice was a huge story for a sleepy little town. If it hadn't been so heartbreakingly-tragic, it might have felt like Christmas to reporters there.
As Venice was discovered to be increasingly important to the story of the terrorist conspiracy, the headlines over the paper's reports changed to reflect it, going from: "FBI LINKS THIRD TERRORIST TO VENICE;" to "FOURTH TERRORIST SUSPECT MAY HAVE TIES TO VENICE;" to: "FIFTH PILOT TRAINEE VANISHES."
In his initial account of Atta's third Venice landlords, Kimel recapped what the FBI had released about Atta's stay in Venice. And right away he noticed a huge discrepancy between local eye-witnesses and the official account:
"Voss and his wife, Dru, asked the pair to leave after less than a week. The two men lived in a Nokomis rental home from July 2000 to January 2001, according to the home's owner. Huffman flight instructors have said they believe Atta left the area shortly after receiving his pilot's certification."
"However, Atta may have been in Venice as recently as April. Charles Grapentine, the manager of Sandpiper Apartments on Airport Avenue in Venice, said he remembers seeing Atta at the complex for about three weeks in April. He said Atta was living in the apartment of Amanda Keller."
When we finally found Amanda Keller, one of the first things she said was how distressed she had been when she learned that her former landlord had talked to the press. "When I saw Charlie talking in the newspaper I knew they were going to jump all over him. I thought, 'Charlie, no. Can't you just wait?"'
Kimel's story was where we first learned that terrorist ringleader Atta had an American girlfriend while in Venice. Somewhere out there was a girl named Amanda Keller, who undoubtedly had one whale of a story to tell.
News accounts of Atta's stay at the Sandpiper don't just stray from the FBI's account. They flatly contradicted it.
After just weeks in Southwest Florida, we had the chilling feel ing that someone -- or something -- big was being hidden down in the mangrove swamps of Southwest Florida ...
Something in Venice.
When we showed up at the Sandpiper Apartments, over six months after the attack, we learned we were in luck.
The shock had begun to wear off, and the FBI agents had stopped coming around. After climbing the stairs to unit 26, Atta and Amanda's second floor apartment, we knocked on their next-door neighbor's door.
Stephanie Frederickson was home. She invited us in.
And she talked.