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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Tue. Oct 11, 2005

Big City, Big Crimes

I had a busy day Monday, my head down into the keyboard, so I wasn’t exactly tracking local news. Imagine my surprise when I see that one of the most linked stories is about a “terrorism bombing” in Atlanta. Then, imagine my yawning ennui to find yet another overblown story that turns out to be more media sensationalism and blogger blather than fact, while another ominous story is completely ignored (“Look, a pony!” ... as a T-Rex walks by behind them).

The AJC ought to be embarrassed at the skimpy excuse for an article they have: “Two Georgia Tech freshman dormitories were evacuated Monday when a plastic water bottle found in a courtyard exploded with a loud bang in a campus custodian’s hands.

Which isn’t even accurate, according to the report on the 11Alive 11:00 news. They reported the custodian was using a grab-stick to pick up trash, and when he grabbed the bottle with the stick, it went off. But not in a very big way: “The employee, who complained of ringing in his ears, was taken to a clinic for evaluation, but was not seriously injured.

However, earlier Monday, 11Alive had this quote online: “‘It is a terrorist act at this point and depending on the outcome of the investigation it potentially could become a federal violation as well,’ said Major C.W. Moss of the Atlanta Police Department.

And with that use of the phrase “terrorist act,” all kinds of people started beating the drums.

The thing is, this has happened before, on November 9, 2001

A rude awakening greeted Tech fraternity members whose houses are located near the intersection of Fifth Street and Techwood Drive early Sunday morning when a small device exploded in the area. The incident injured one member of the Georgia Tech Police Department and set in motion a chain of events that blocked off streets in the area for almost four hours.

“The explosion was kind of low level, even though technically it was an explosion, and this type of device is illegal,” said Jack Vickery, Georgia Tech Chief of Police.

According to Vickery, a GTPD officer spotted a suspicious college-aged white male in the area shortly before the explosion. The officer originally thought the man might be looking for an automobile to break into, as a number of such burglaries have occurred on campus in recent weeks.

“The officer got out [of his patrol car] to investigate and the guy took off running. He left a bag sitting on the ground,” said Vickery.

As the officer approached the bag, part of it exploded. He later found out the bag contained two two-liter bottles filled with a volatile liquid. The explosion was caused by one of the two bottles exploding.

While officials are still investigating to determine exactly what substance was in the liquid that caused the bottles to explode, Vickery noted that it was most likely a mixture of a number of chemicals that built-up the gas pressure inside and eventually caused the explosion.

This is nearly identical to the device they described on the news tonight. Not only has it happened before, but at that time Tech’s Chief of Police said (emphasis mine), “‘It has been a while, but we have encountered this type of thing before’ said Vickery [...] ‘Folks need to know that things that would at one time be considered pranks can’t be done anymore.’

And, you must remember, this is an engineering school. In the South. Pranks are legendary, like stealing the “T” from the word Tech on the campus tower. Or read about the story of George P. Burdell, who has been a student at Tech … since 1927. That’s a 78 year old prank.

Now, you could argue that any type of explosive device moves the act well beyond a “prank,” and I’d be inclined to agree. But … I would also ask, has any college student ever taken a “prank” to an extreme and had it careen out of control? Yep. Time or two.

It’s a felony, beyond a prank. But to put this together with other stories and go straight to “are our campuses fountains for jihad” borders on paranoia, and violates Occam’s Razor. The most obvious and simplest theory is that a college student did something really stupid, and could end up in jail over it … as has happened for various reasons at various colleges for decades. It’s far more yee-haw than jihad.

Meanwhile, just northeast of Atlanta, there was what I would consider a far more ominous crime, if only because it shows what is possible.

Under cover of night, a stolen charter jet landed at Gwinnett County Airport/Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville, and police don’t know who’s responsible.

Gwinnett County police are investigating how a Cessna Citation 650 jet came to be sitting on the Briscoe tarmac. It was found early Monday afternoon, Gwinnett police spokesman Darren Moloney said. The plane landed between 9 p.m. Saturday and 6:30 a.m. Sunday, he said. The flight tower at Briscoe is in operation from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

According to the St. Augustine Sheriff’s Office, pilots from Pinnacle Air Jet Charter landed the plane at the St. Augustine Airport about 10:40 a.m. Saturday. After they dropped off their clients, they left the plane on the tarmac and waited for their next flight assignment. The pilots first realized the plane was gone Monday morning.

AJC: Stolen jet found at Briscoe Field

Did you parse the timeline on that? A plane was stolen in Florida and lands in Atlanta sometime after dark Saturday night. It is Monday morning before anyone even knows it is gone. It’s Monday afternoon before anyone at the Gwinnett County Airport notices “hey, somebody backed a plane between two big hangers … almost like they wanted to hide it. Hmm.”

And this is no tiny Cessna. It’s a twin-engine 7 passenger jet with a range of 2,000 miles, and the cockpit looks unlike that of any Cessna I’ve ever been in. It would take more than your average pilot to fly it. A witness saw one person walking away from that plane Saturday night, and thought nothing of it. After all, if you park a $7 million jet, you’ll be coming back for it, right? Nothing really suspicious there.

Well, in this case, it’s probably just a really upscale form of carjacking. But, apparently, if you got da skillz, you can steal a sizable aircraft and tool around for up to 36 hours before anyone will even notice it’s gone. Could just be me, but I find that a bit more disconcerting than an overpressured soda bottle bomb.

Later: I’ve posted an update to these two incidents. It turns out the “Georgia Tech bomber” wasn’t an Islamic jihadist. He was … a blogger. And the plane was stolen for a joyride by another relative youth with more skillz than judgement.


Peanut Gallery

1  Jackie wrote:

That’s a tad bit more than disconcerting to me. The raw potential for horror that this mystery plane was capable of while missing from the “radar screen” is chilling, indeed. Could have been a terrorist flight and who’d have stopped it? I’m betting it was a pilot in an alcoholic blackout. I had a friend who made some spectacular journeys with no recollection of ANYTHING between pointA and point B. He sobered up . Anyhow, I sure do hope we hear the rest of THIS story.

2  simon wrote:

That citation needs 2 pilots to operate it, not just one.

3  emcee fleshy wrote:

Remember, these are engineering students. Geeks. When Tech students do this sort of thing, its more out of a spirit of “dude, check this out!” than “let’s mess with somebody.”

Not that Techies can’t get into trouble breaking the law, they just do it a little differently sometimes. When I was an undergrad, one of the chemistry labs was busted for being a significant source of the PCP on the east coast. The article in the Technique (the school paper) that week spent about one paragraph lamenting the criminality, and the rest of the article discussing the FBI’s observation that the lab made the purest PCP they had ever seen.

19 year-old engineering students: Long on talent, short on judgment.

4  Jon wrote:

So…what did the two pilots do, who were waiting for their next assignment? Doesn’t it seem reasonable that they would have done something other than leave the plane on the tarmac, or is that standard protocol? You need a key to start your lawn mower, isn’t one necessary to at least open the door of an airplane?

Comment by Jon · 10/11/2005 05:04 PM
5  Ezzie wrote:

Thanks for the link. As a point, I actually started writing that I was concerned when last week’s bombing happened; and my point is not so much whether this attack is truly an attack, but why we’re completely unprepared for an attack – which is always a distinct possibility.

6  Brian wrote:

In answer to Simon “The Citation needs two pilots to operate it, not just one.” While it is correct to state that the Cessna model 650 as certified by the FAA requires two pilots to operate legally, the entire Cessna Citation series of aircraft are legendary for their ease of operation, and could easily be operated by one pilot. While that would of course be illegal, it is also illegal to “steal” aircraft.

It should be a simple matter to see if the aircraft departed Florida on a flight plan and was provided radar services while enroute to its Georgia destination. Is it possible the stranded Florida crew just didn’t get the word on a new crew taking the airplane on its next leg?

I see opportunity for further invetigation and follow up reporting before pushing too many alarm buttons.

7  Zack wrote:

Ah, our little “terroristic” incident yesterday! I wouldn’t have even heard about it if the school administration had not decided to send a mass email (Excerpts on my blog.) And I don’t even recall that 2001 incident.

8  Addison wrote:

Jon:
“Doesn’t it seem reasonable that they would have done something other than leave the plane on the tarmac, or is that standard protocol?”

Well, if you taxi it to the hotel, usually, the state patrol gets irritated.

“You need a key to start your lawn mower, isn’t one necessary to at least open the door of an airplane?”

Yes.

Of course, any lock is pickable. More importantly, most of those keys are standardized. Quite simple for a locksmith, or someone with those tools/blanks/a number of the keys to open it.

” But, apparently, if you got da skillz, you can steal a sizable aircraft and tool around for up to 36 hours before anyone will even notice it’s gone. Could just be me, but I find that a bit more disconcerting than an overpressured soda bottle bomb.”

Yep. Basically, you can’t stop everything. Think about the big airplane depots at even major airports – it’s not that much more of a stretch to see that someone could abscond with some of the bigger planes sidelined for maintenance or just sitting, and it would take possibly longer than 36 hours to get through all the calls/searching it would take. Something like that would initially be written off as paperwork mistake.. Not quite the same as the pilots coming back the next day and finding their ride gone. :)

9  Billy Beck wrote:

If you knew Briscoe Field, your questions would already be answered. There is nothing unusual about this except that it’s a stolen airplane. The way traffic moves around that airport—in distinctive patterns for day and night (busy as hell in the former, very quiet in the latter)—there is nothing unusual about finding an airplane “between two hangars”. It’s the way the place is laid out.

Here’s how I know: I trained there.

It’s where I met Mohamed Atta.

10  Reid wrote:

Thanks for the info, Billy, and the link to your article. Joshua Sharf also has a good article on this. And I saw on the news tonight that the Gwinnett police say they have some people who’ve come forward and say they know how the plane got here, so hopefully we’ll know the whole story in the next few days.

As I said, I doubt it’s anything sinister, and I know there’s no way to lock down every sizable aircraft in this country. I just wonder about the gaps, and how they could be used.

11  Billy Beck wrote:

I know what you mean about the gaps and their potential, Reid. But I have alarms when I see a story like this and the responses to it. That’s because a great deal of the clamp on general aviation in the wake of 9/11 was utter rubbish. It would likely take some length of technical detail to make the point, but I would leave two general points for consideration:

1) People in this country like to make a lot of noise about “minorities”. Well, there is no minority quite like general aviation. The public at large knows nothing about any of it, and very few will think twice about stomping on pilots, even if it doesn’t make sense to people who know what they’re talking about.

2) If people start getting the shakes every time an airplane goes missing, then there is one hell of a lot of everyday American life that will have to be taken in hand in order to soothe nerves. Anyone who thinks a loose 21,000 lb. airplane is a problem would be doing a lot better to start trying to control every 80,000 lb. tractor-trailer rig in the country. And a rational person is going to understand what will happen to American life if we try it.

Yes: there are things to be concerned about.

At the same time, I am concerned that people shouldn’t lose their minds behind something like this.

12  Reid wrote:

I have alarms when I see a story like this and the responses to it

Which was exactly my reaction to the “drum beating” over the “bomb” at Georgia Tech. I know it isn’t true, but I swear, sometimes it seems like people want an attack to happen so bad they are seeking it in every odd story.

The truth is, if/when Al Qaeda attacks the continental US again … I don’t think we’ll be sitting around wondering “is this it?” It will be painfully obvious.

13  Todd H. wrote:

Yawn. A lot.

First, the whole college ‘bomb’ thing is a great big joke, made big by a media intent on turning every molehill into a mountain. Here’s the home study version- go buy a Coke in one of those plastic bottles, the 1 liter version is a good size. Put a bunch of baking soda in it, about an inch or three, then pour it about a quarter full of vinegar. Put the cap back on before it fizzes all over you, put it on good and tight. Set the bottle down, and move away, mostly so you don’t get covered with smelly stuff when it goes bang. It makes a nice loud noise, but it’s hardly life-threatening. I would bet real money that’s what this ‘volitale liquid’ was- vinegar.

As for the airplane thing, it’s hardly super-rare for aircraft to be stolen. What’s rare is recovering them. As for them requiring two pilots, that’s false- very few aircraft can’t be flown solo, it’s just operating procedure to have more than one. Thieves don’t give a damn about operating procedures.

The media is well on it’s way to creating a whole generation of paranoids.

14  Reid wrote:

The media is well on it’s way to creating a whole generation of paranoids

You won’t get any argument from me when it comes to media sensationalism presented in lieu of actual news. But in this case, they had a whole lot of help … from bloggers. What started as one quote by one Atlanta police officer placed online at one TV station web site morphed into the top linked news item at both Memorandum and Blogsnow. Morphed because dozens of bloggers jumped on the bandwagon after the single report of a single cop calling it a “terrorist act.”

Like I said, sometimes it seems like people want an attack to happen so bad they are seeking it in every odd story. I actually read someone who wrote about this, “OK, I am totally freaked out now.” Over what turned out to be a soda bottle bomb.

It appears no one has learned (as has happened time and time and time again) that first reports range from glaringly incomplete to completely inaccurate. First reports after the earthquake in Pakistan used the specific figure “746 deaths.” Mere hours after it happened, some idiot at AP/Reuters/whatever had somehow decided that specific number was valid enough to report as “news.” It was only off by a factor of 25 or 30.

No one can wait half a news cycle to see what the real story might be. It’s much more fun to jump right into speculation with the handful of (often incorrect) facts at hand. After all, you can always do this…

Update: It would appear my earlier paranoia was factually unfounded. Turned out it wasn’t Islamists, it was an 18 year old freshman engineering student from Pennsylvania named Theodore who dropped them out his window.”

15  J wrote:

Two things I’d check out on the “stolen” Citation:

1. Was the owner current on payments? This looks an awful lot like a repossession.

2. Did the aircraft have any high value avionics installed? And don’t just look to see if they’re missing – pull the units in the aircraft and see if they’re the same ones originally installed (swapping units being a common means of “laundering” stolen avionics).

I don’t want to discount the possibility of something more sinister, and there’s no question that an aircraft like this could be used for a suicide attack of some sort, but remember that the WTC towers were brought down by the burning of 10000+ gallons of gas, not the impact of a (much larger) aircraft. A major attack would be a lot easier using a truck than a bizjet.

Comment by J · 10/12/2005 08:53 AM
16  Ken wrote:

Thank you for some much needed perspective

Comment by Ken · 10/12/2005 05:22 PM
17  MWW wrote:

I’m making a guess….

But plane was stolen from Florida, no flight-plan registered (obviously) and is dumped in Georgia.. and who knows where else it stopped of in between because the timing is unsure?

I’m betting South Florida, and I’m also guessing “drugs” was the cargo.

So.. I’m betting… No terrorists involved, just run of the mill ordinary criminals who maybe have decided that the easiest way to bypass driving North on the I5 from Miami, with a few hundred pounds of coke in their fancy schmancy SUV—to offload, decided to fly the friendly skies instead.

Since the I5 corridor is regularly patrolled and the police regularly stop and do search and seizure of vehicles… carrying a lot of drugs is perhaps to risky for them.

I could be wrong. But I doubt it.

Comment by MWW · 10/12/2005 05:37 PM
18  Billy Beck wrote:

Hmm. Repo, huh?

An N-number search tells us that the registration certificate was issued on July 25 of this year.

You might be on to something.

19  Reid wrote:

MWW, drug dogs searched the plane and indicated no traces. Repo sounds like an option, but we’ll know more in a few days. More here.

20  Billy Beck wrote:

Well, then.

Here you go.

21  Pluto's Dad wrote:

When I was in college (from ‘89 to ‘92) some guys on our dorm floor made their own (very large) firecrackers, and would light them and throw them into the dorm courtyard at night. They never got caught even though we all knew about it. At the time I thought “whatever” of course now I think that is crazy and they’re lucky they never got hurt or hurt anyone else.

I have friends that made those 2 liter bottle bombs. I think they even showed you how to make it on tech tv once.

22  Emily wrote:

This is pretty funny-I admit, college students don’t always use their brain, but the media needs to chill out on some of this terrorism stuff.

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