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Customs official confirms report of 2nd man held from Flight 253

Posted: 2010-01-02
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Last Updated: January 01. 2010 4:37PM

Jennifer Chambers and Paul Egan / The Detroit News

Detroit -- A federal customs and border protection official reversed himself today, admitting a passenger from Northwest Flight 253 was placed in handcuffs, searched and released after a canine alerted officers to his carry-on luggage.

Ronald G. Smith, chief U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer in the Detroit area, sent an email to The Detroit News late Thursday apologizing that the information on the passenger -- which was reported to federal investigators by a pair of Taylor attorneys who were passengers on the flight -- was not made available earlier.

Federal officials had denied the details of the incident despite repeated accounts by attorneys Kurt and Lori Haskell of Taylor who say they saw a man get questioned by federal officials and be led away from the airport baggage area in handcuffs after a sniffer dog reacted to something in the man's carry-on luggage.

The couple said the man, who appeared to be in his early 30s and of Indian descent, was taken to a room for questioning and later led out of that room in handcuffs.

In the email, which was also sent to the couple, Smith said he had just received a piece of information he did not have previously and hopes "it will clear up the matter."

Smith said the man was handcuffed and escorted to a room where he was interviewed and searched. Nothing was found. The man was not arrested or detained, and no further information was available about him, Smith said.

"This information is consistent with eyewitness accounts," Smith said.

In previous statements, the FBI has said only one man from the flight was arrested. That man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian being held at the Milan federal prison, is charged with trying to destroy an aircraft and taking a destructive device aboard an aircraft. He created a small fire before landing when he tried to set off explosive chemicals hidden in his underwear, according to court records.

Passengers jumped on him and put out the blaze with the help of the flight crew.

In previous interviews Smith said the Haskells' account was a composite of two events that occurred at the airport around the time passengers got off Flight 253.

The incidents were:

A man from another flight -- Northwest Flight 249, also from Amsterdam -- was arrested at the jetway as he got off his flight and would have been led handcuffed through the area where the Flight 253 passengers were gathered, Smith said. The name of the man was not released, Smith added, because he was arrested on suspicion of immigration violations, not on a criminal matter.

A sniffer dog reacted to agricultural or food products inside the bag of a third man, who was off yet another flight, Smith said. He was questioned and may have had some items confiscated but was not arrested, Smith said. Smith could not identify the flight number for the man found with prohibited food or plant products.

Lori Haskell said Thursday that she and her husband stand by their original story and alleged the government was concealing the facts about the incident.

Today, reached by phone, Lori Haskell said the email was a small victory for the couple yet it angered them at the same time.

"I just want them to look into our claims," Lori Haskell said. "Our story has been the same since Day One because we are telling the truth. This is the FBI's fourth story."

The Haskells, who were questioned Tuesday by FBI agents at their law office, earlier told The Detroit News that Kurt Haskell saw Abdulmutallab in Amsterdam apparently trying to board the flight without a passport.

Kurt Haskell said he saw a well-dressed Indian man, who was older than the Indian man arrested at Detroit Metro, attempting to negotiate with airline officials to get Abdulmutallab on the plane without a passport. He appeared to be trying to pass Abdulmutallab off as a Sudanese refugee, Haskell said.

Nigerian officials have said Abdulmutallab presented a valid Nigerian passport and multi-entry U.S. visa when he began his trip in Lagos. Federal officials seized both documents in Detroit, a person familiar with the investigation said.

Officials have said Abdulmutallab's name was included in a large database of people with possible terrorist ties but was not on the more exclusive no-fly list.

[email protected] (734) 462-2289

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