Local News

N.C. Man Reportedly Got Box Cutters Onto Plane At RDU

Posted October 21, 2003

— A Guilford College student accused of smuggling weapons onto planes started his trip at

Raleigh-Durham International Airport

.

Even more alarming -- he did it on Sept. 12, the day after the two-year anniversary of terrorist attacks on the U.S., and a day when people might expect airport security to be extra tight.

Box cutters, clay formed to look like plastic explosives and notes criticizing security were found on two Southwest Airlines planes last week.

Nathaniel Heatwole, 20, said he hid the banned items on two airliners in an act of "civil disobedience" to expose weaknesses in U.S. security. He boarded one of the planes at RDU.

Heatwole was charged Monday with taking a dangerous weapon aboard an aircraft. He was released without bail for a preliminary hearing Nov. 10.

A prosecutor said Heatwole committed a "very serious and foolish action."

According to authorities, Heatwole told federal agents he went through normal security procedures at both RDU and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Once aboard, he said, he hid the banned items in compartments in the planes' rear lavatories.

After getting past RDU security on Sept. 12, Heatwole got past BWI security on Sept. 15.

Despite news of the security breach, RDU officials said the airport is still safe.

"Federal screeners here at RDU identify over 4,000 prohibited items each month," RDU spokesperson Mindy Hamlin said. "The system is working."

Most of the information about Heatwole's actions comes from Heatwole himself.

On Sept. 15, according to an FBI affidavit, the

Transportation Security Administration

received an e-mail from Heatwole saying he had "information regarding six security breaches" at the Raleigh-Durham and Baltimore-Washington airports between Feb. 7 and Sept. 14.

He provided precise details of the security breaches, right down to the flight numbers. The e-mail even provided Heatwole's name and telephone number.

The objects were not found until last week -- five weeks later.

The discovery of the items Thursday aboard Southwest planes that landed in New Orleans and Houston triggered stepped-up inspections of the entire U.S. commercial air fleet -- roughly 7,000 planes.

After consulting with the FBI, the TSA rescinded the inspection order, and no other suspicious bags were found.

The TSA did not send Heatwole's e-mail to the FBI until last Friday. FBI agents then located Heatwole and interviewed him.

The charge against Heatwole, a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, carries up to 10 years in prison.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey set a number of conditions for Heatwole's release. Among other things, he must not enter any airport or board any airplane.

Heatwole sat stone-faced during the hearing. His parents were in the courtroom but did not greet or acknowledge him during the hearing and did not comment afterward.

According to the FBI affidavit, Heatwole's signed e-mail "stated that he was aware his actions were against the law and that he was aware of the potential consequences for his actions, and that his actions were an 'act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public.'"

But U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio said Heatwole's conduct "was not a prank.

"This was not poor judgment," DiBiagio said. "It was not a test. It was not a civil action. It was a very serious and foolish action."

Deputy TSA Administrator Stephen McHale said Monday's court action "makes clear that renegade acts to probe airport security, for whatever reason, will not be tolerated, pure and simple.

"Amateur testing of our systems do not show us in any way our flaws. We know where the vulnerabilities are, and we are testing them. ... This does not help."

Heatwole's smuggled bags contained box cutters, modeling clay made to look like plastic explosives, matches and bleach hidden in sunscreen bottles, the affidavit said.

Inside were notes with details about when and where the items were carried aboard. They were signed "3891925," which is the reverse of Heatwole's birthday: 5/29/1983.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 hijackers used box cutters to take over four airliners, box cutters and bleach are among the

items that cannot be carried onto planes.

Homeland Security

Secretary Tom Ridge, whose department includes TSA, said officials "will go back and look at our protocol" for handling such e-mails. He said the agency gets a high volume of e-mails about possible threats and that officials decided that Heatwole "wasn't an imminent threat."

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