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"Suicide bomber" written on notebook has FBI questioning plane passenger

By Kimra McPherson, Elise Ackerman and Rodney Foo
Mercury News

FBI agents and San Jose police spent several hours questioning a Santa Cruz man Wednesday after a fellow passenger on a Frontier Airlines jet from Denver glimpsed ``suicide bomber'' written on the man's journal.

Convinced the man wasn't part of terrorist plot, authorities then set him free.

``Whatever the person wrote in their journal was not against the law,'' police spokesman Enrique Garcia said.

But the writing was enough to alarm a passenger who notified a crew member on Flight 169 about 40 minutes after take-off that the man was acting bizarrely, writing in his journal and clutching his backpack.

Authorities boarded the plane and escorted the 36-year-old man off the jet after it landed safely at Mineta San Jose International Airport with 112 passengers aboard.

The legal distinction between writing the words ``suicide bomber'' and saying it aloud on a plane is all about ``context,'' said Special Agent LaRae K. Quy, spokeswoman for the FBI's San Francisco office.

If someone shouted ``bomb,'' Quy said, authorities would be able to quickly discern the intent.

But written words aren't so obvious. For example, authorities would have to determine who wrote the offending words and parse its meaning, she said.

Are the words the name of a book? A movie? The name of a band? What is the person's background?

Quy couldn't say Wednesday whether investigators believe the man had written ``suicide bomber'' on or in any part of the journal.

However, she noted, there was ``no reason to believe there was any sort of terrorist activity going on there.''

Wednesday's incident served to underscore the ongoing struggle to balance air traffic safety concerns with an individual's constitutional rights in a post-Sept. 11 world.

But Garcia said police and federal agents had little choice but to check out the passenger.

``It was alarming enough to concern that passenger about their safety and the safety of everyone on that flight,'' Garcia said.

``How do you know if he doesn't have a weapon or if somebody else is working in concert with him?''

The plane touched down in San Jose about 10:10 a.m., and was steered away from the two terminals, said San Jose Sgt. Nick Muyo. FBI agents and police officers then boarded the plane and detained the man.

Authorities suspected the man might be under the influence of alcohol or drugs as they interviewed him and are awaiting toxicology tests results, Garcia said.

The jetliner was returned to service, airport spokeswoman Marina Renneke said. Frontier's return flight to Denver departed about half an hour late, but no other planes were delayed.

San Jose Mercury News (http://www.mercurynews.com/)

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