Passengers Speak Out About Wife's Desperation - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

12/8/05-Miami, FL

Passengers Speak Out About Wife's Desperation

Witnesses aboard an American Airlines jetliner say that Rigoberto Alpizar's wife pursued him, saying he was mentally ill, just before federal marshals shot and killed him. Air marshals said Alpizar had announced he was carrying a bomb.

Later, no explosives were found. The incident remains under investigation.

"She was chasing after him," said fellow passenger Alan Tirpak. "She was just saying her husband was sick, her husband was sick." When the woman returned, "she just kept saying the same thing over and over, and that's when we heard the shots."

Another passenger, Mary Gardner of Orlando, said she also overheard Alpizar's wife. "I heard her say, 'he's bipolar, he doesn't have his medicine,'" Gardner recalled.

Ellen Sutliff, who said she sat near Alpizar, described him as agitated, even before he boarded the plane. His wife kept coaxing him, "We just have to get through customs. Please, please help me get through this," according to Sutliff.

"We're going to be home soon, and everything will be all right," Sutliff quoted the wife as saying.

Alpizar's mother-in-law told CNN affiliate WKMG that he suffered from bipolar disorder.

Accounts vary on whether Alpizar had announced he had a bomb.

Tirpak said he didn't hear Alpizar say anything.

Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, said Alpizar had run up and down the plane's aisle yelling, "I have a bomb in my bag."

Adams said Alpizar fled the aircraft when marshals confronted him on the boarding bridge.

"They asked the gentleman, 'Drop your bag, drop your bag. Come to the ground. I'm a federal law enforcement officer. Police. Drop your bag,'" Adams told CNN.

"He failed to comply with their commands, continued approaching the air marshals claiming he had a bomb in his bag. And then they ordered him again down to the ground. He didn't."

The marshals fired two or three shots when Alpizar appeared to reach into his bag, Adams said.

"Based on their training they had to take the appropriate action to diffuse the situation to prevent a danger to themselves and also passengers in the terminal," Adams said.

One law enforcement source said the backpack had drawn attention, because Alpizar wore it over his chest, not his back.

It was the first time a federal air marshal fired a weapon at someone since the program was bolstered after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The two marshals who fired at Alpizar were placed on administrative leave pending the investigation, the air marshal service said.

The agency said Alpizar was not on any terror watch lists.

Marshals on plane

Gardner said that before the shooting, a fight broke out between the Alpizars. She said she was comforted after an airline pilot seated beside her said air marshals were on the plane and aware of the situation.

Gardner said the situation became more tense when the wife received a phone call on the plane.

"There was something going on that just was not right, and the pilot told me, he said ... 'Look, there's a marshal right there, they know what's going on. We're covered.'

"So we all felt fine, and then, of course, everything happened."

Alpizar ran off the plane clutching a bag, chased by a man in a Hawaiian shirt, passenger Mike Beshears told CNN. That man turned out to be one of the two air marshals.

Beshears said he did not hear Alpizar say anything. "He just was in a hurry and exited the plane," he said.

Alpizar's wife also followed him part of the way down the aisle, then returned to her seat saying, her husband was sick and she needed to get his bags, Beshears said.

"After she passed back toward her seat ... a number of shots rang out -- at least five, up to six, shots rang out. And I saw the flight attendants returning, running down first class toward coach, and we were all told 'Get down, get down.'

"The gentleman's wife had made it back up," Beshears recalled. "And about the time she got to the row in which we were crouched, the flight attendant -- I have to commend her on the way she handled the situation -- she actually intercepted the lady and took her down in the aisle with myself and a guy."

Marshals entered the plane and ordered everyone to put their hands on their heads, while they searched it, Gardner said.

After the shooting, investigators took passengers' luggage off the plane, and an explosives team blew open Alpizar's luggage on the tarmac. A subsequent search of Alpizar's backpack and luggage aboard the aircraft turned up no sign of a bomb, Bauer said.

Neighbors recall Alpizar as the guy next door

Alpizar, a U.S. citizen, had boarded American Airlines Flight 924 in Miami to fly to Orlando, Florida. The 44-year-old Maitland, Florida, resident had just connected from a flight from Ecuador.

Neighbors and family described him as a nice guy and said the image that federal marshals painted of him was at odds with the man they knew.

A neighbor, Janice Tweedie, called Alpizar "very friendly and helpful to people around the neighborhood ... a very pleasant person, he and his wife both."

"I've never seen any erratic behavior from him at all," Tweedie said.

Alpizar moved to the United States from Costa Rica in 1986 and worked for Home Depot, his brother-in-law, Steven Buechner, told CNN. He said that Alpizar and his wife had been in South America since the day after Thanksgiving to help out her uncle, a volunteer dentist.

Buechner said the couple had no children and that he was unaware of any mental health issues Alpizar may have had.

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