12/09/05 — Unfortunate: Air marshals’ first victim was harmless

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Unfortunate: Air marshals’ first victim was harmless

The investigation has not been completed, at this writing, in the shooting of a threatening passenger at a Miami airport.

What is apparent, however, is that it was a tragic incident involving an emotionally disturbed man who, as it turned, posed no real danger to anyone — except himself.

But air marshals on the scene had no way of knowing that.

Indeed, the victim, Rigoberto Alpizar, 44, was aboard an American Airlines plane on the ground in Miami. Carrying a pack, he began running down the aisle shouting that he had a bomb.

Flight attendants reportedly were knocked down as he dashed through the plane, out its exit and into a hallway leading to the terminal. Marshals ordered him to stop and to lie on the ground. He apparently failed to do so.

Preliminary reports say that when Alpizar began reaching into the pack, the marshals opened fire. Alpizar was killed. He had no bomb and no weapon.

Passengers said later that the victim’s wife told them he was bipolar and had not taken his medication. They were returning home from a church function in Ecuador.

He was described as a friendly, respected and loved citizen of Maitland, Fla. He had grown up in Costa Rica but was proud of his American citizenship.

Air marshals on the scene in Miami did not have the benefit of knowing about Alpizar’s illness or his background. They had to react to circumstances of the moment — a man dashing through an airplane and into its terminal with a backpack and shouting that he was carrying a bomb. A man who refused to halt and lie down when ordered to do so.

It is a tragedy that the first person killed by our air marshals was an innocent, emotionally disturbed man off his medication. Under the circumstances, even Rigoberto Alpizar must have thought he was carrying a bomb.

Undoubtedly, our air marshals will closely review the case to see if there might have been something they might have done to avoid the tragedy.

But Wednesday in Miami, the marshals had split seconds to make decisions that could spell the difference between taking down a man screaming he had a bomb — and permitting an explosion that could cause a far greater loss of life.

Published in Editorials on December 9, 2005 11:13 AM