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U.S. prosecutors say air marshals justified in shooting passenger

AP Legal Affairs Writer

MIAMI- Two federal air marshals were justified in using deadly force in the fatal December shooting of an airline passenger originally from Costa Rica at Miami International Airport ("Airplane shooting draws undercover air marshals into spotlight")and will not be charged with any crime, state prosecutors concluded Tuesday.

A 46-page report released by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle found that the two air marshals had no way of knowing that the passenger, 44-year-old Rigoberto Alpizar, suffered from bipolar disorder when they heard him use the word "bomb" at least once while running through the plane's cabin.

"The shooting death of Mr. Alpizar, while tragic, is legally justified in light of the surrounding circumstances presented to the air marshals," the report said. "It should be noted that both air marshals demonstrated remarkable restraint in dealing with Mr. Alpizar."

Alpizar, a Costa Rica native who became a U.S. citizen and lived in the Orlando suburb of Maitland, was shot by two covert federal air marshals Dec. 7 after he claimed to have a bomb and appeared to reach into a backpack strapped to his chest. No bomb was found.

The shooting marked the first time federal air marshals had fired weapons in the line of duty since the program was dramatically expanded to protect airliners following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Federal officials had said at the time that it appeared the marshals acted properly.

A telephone message left Tuesday with Alpizar's wife, Anne Buechner, was not immediately returned.

Alpizar and Buechner, returning from a trip to Ecuador and Peru, were preparing to fly from Miami to Orlando aboard American Airlines Flight 924 when the shooting occurred. Buechner told investigators that her husband had exhibited some odd behavior during their trip, such as an inability to make basic decisions, but nothing violent in nature.

Alpizar seemed particularly upset about the theft of his wife's fanny pack, which contained her passport and other personal items, from a restaurant table in Ecuador.

A few minutes before the Miami-to-Orlando plane was scheduled to depart, Buechner said, Alpizar got increasingly agitated, "looked tense and had poor eye contact and stated he was scared," according to the report.

The report revealed that Alpizar had not been taking enough of the drug Lithium to control his bipolar disorder.

After he ran through the aircraft's cabin yelling the word "bomb," he was confronted on the jetway ramp by both air marshals with their service weapons drawn. Both ordered him, in Spanish and English, to "stop" and "get down."

Instead, the report found that Alpizar made repeated additional bomb threats, ignored the air marshals' commands and headed back toward the plane with his hands on his backpack. Several passengers and flight crew members heard the bomb threats, as well as Alpizar's wife, the report said.

"I'm going to blow up this bomb. I'm going to show you," one air marshal quoted Alpizar as saying.

A flight attendant said she heard Alpizar say to the marshals, "Go ahead, just shoot me!"

The two marshals, neither of whom was identified in the report by name, fired a total of nine rounds from their SIG Sauer .357-caliber handguns. Alpizar collapsed and died on the jetway.

Several passengers said they heard Buechner tell the marshals before they fired that her husband suffered from bipolar disorder and not to hurt him.

"He's sick. He's sick. Let me go off. Let me calm him down," a flight attendant quoted Buechner as saying.

But the report called that "factually and legally irrelevant" because the air marshals had an overriding responsibility "to deal quickly and decisively with the issue presented" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"Under these circumstances, there simply is no room for delay for the purposes of conducting the type of investigation that hindsight offers," the report said.


On the Net:

Miami-Dade state attorney: http://www.miamisao.com/index.html

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