The long run of Rudi Dekkers, 56, the Dutch national who first passed out bunks to Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi when they arrived in the United States to enroll at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida, ended last week when he was arrested for drug trafficking in Houston.(read the criminal complaint .pdf)
Before relating the details of 'what went down in Houston,' a little 'back story' on Dekkers, who is an historically important figure:
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, it was Rudi Dekkers' running account of the character and personality of Mohamed Atta and the other terrorists which transfixed a nation and the world. He was everywhere on television.
Even though it seemed to many observers that he was making it up as he went along, Dekkers fixed an image of the hijackers that changed remarkably little in the years that followed.
Marwan was the jolly one. Atta was rude. Dekkers' didn't like him, he asserted, ever more emphatically. He just didn't.
"I just had this funny feeling"
On the day after the attack, Dekkers had denied to reporters that he's ever talked to Atta or Al-Shehhi, There were dozens of foreign students at the school. He was a very busy man. But his memory very shortly seemed to improve. Later, the operations manager at the second flight school (in Naples) told me someone she thought was an FBI agent had been coaching him behind the scenes.
It didn't matter. It was of no consequence.
While Dekkers was getting more face time than anyone since O.J. Simpson, he was wanted for felony fraud in his native Netherlands, I reported exclusively.
This was thought to be unremarkable.
Over the next decade I filed dozens of stories presenting evidence that Huffman Aviation in Venice Florida was like no other flight school in America; that while the terrorist hijackers were practicing “touch and go’s” on the runway outside, what owner Wally Hilliard and manager Rudi Dekkers had been running looked very much like a continuing criminal enterprise.
For example, three weeks after Atta showed up Wally Hilliard's Learjet (N351WB) was busted on a runway at Orlando Executive Airport carrying 43 lbs of heroin, an amount known as "heavy weight" in the drug trade.
At that time, July of 2001, something like 80% of the world's heroin came from Afganistan. (The percentage is much higher today.) Mohamed Atta had been in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was still there.
But no alarm bells went off. It didn't matter.
Runs out of 'get out of jail free' cards
Dekkers first came to the attention of U.S. law enforcement in 1996, according to sources who worked with him at the Naples Airport. He was the subject of a multi-agency Federal task force, investigating allegations, and numerous sources said they were much more than that, that he had been illegally exporting state-of-the-art computer memory chips out of the U.S.
However, no charges were ever filed. In the case of someone who’s been the subject of a multiple agency task force, this was thought to be highly unusual. An executive who worked at Naples Airport, directly under Wally Hilliard, said, "You don't get the FBI US Customs and the DEA all on your ass at once for singing too loud in church."
The suspicion among aviation observers in SW Florida was, and has always been, that Dekkers was offered—and accepted—some kind of deal. Then, last week, in Houston, for an as-yet unknown reason Rudi Dekkers' finally ran out of “get out of jail free” cards.
It had been a long run.
Hooray for Halloween…in Houston
It was Halloween in Houston, the one day a year most people set aside to pretend to be someone else. Rudi Dekkers has been doing it for a living, full-time, for years. The meeting which led to Dekkers arrest took place on October 31 of this year.
On that date, according to the affadavit filed with the criminal complaint, a drug kingpin named Arturo Astorquiza, described as “the head of an international drug trafficking organization (DTO),” introduced an associate of his, who he did not yet know was an undercover agent, to Rudi Dekkers.
Dekkers told the agent, quoting the affidavit, that he was “involved in narcotics transportation using private aircraft and that he has flown narcotics and currency previously without any problem.”
No doubt, what Dekkers actually said was phrased in a considerably less bureaucratic fashion. Probably something like, “I’ve been a drug pilot for years. Drugs. Money. No problem. What do you need?”
A week later, agents arrested “drug kingpin” Astorquiza in the parking lot of his Houston condo.
Agents must be able to suppress snickering at all times
The next week, Dekkers phoned the undercover agent “on his own accord” to tell him that Astorquiza had been busted by the ATF.
The undercover agent must have been successful in suppressing his snickers, because Dekkers then went on to inform him he would soon be flying in to Houston Intercontinental Airport on his way to do a drug flight, and would still be interested in working something out. Dekkers said he would be picking up 6 kilos of cocaine, for which he was to be paid $9000.
This is interesting, and seems to indicate that in the drug business, over the past 30 years, little has changed, because $3000 a key was exactly what Barry Seal charged for transportation way back during the 1980’s.
When he got to Houston Dekkers was placed under round the clock surveillance. He was spotted meeting with Rogelio Martinez-Flores, who proceeded to hand Dekkers something the affidavit refers to as THE BLUE ROLLING SUITCASE, all caps.
At that point, the jig was up. Agents moved in. They brought with them a K-9 unit. Then Jack the dog did a little canine dance all over THE BLUE ROLLING SUITCASE.
One surprise: Instead of the 9 kilos Dekkers said he’d be transporting, in the suitcase was 18 kilos of cocaine, as well as 860 grams of heroin.
I’m no saint. I'm human. Spending a decade as a non-person for telling the truth has been no walk in the park. But I don't think “I told you so” is an ennobling sentiment. But that's not really it, either. I've been thinking about something that happened almost 20 years ago.
During a press conference announcing the launch his new magazine, the short-lived George, JFK Jr. was asked if he'd use the magazine as a platform to investigate his father’s murder. His answer, it seems to me, was very wise, and also incredibly poignant.
No, he said Too much time had passed. Said John Kennedy Jr., “Time is the great enemy of the truth.”
Meaning that by the time the general public figured out that the people who killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy had shot their way into power, just like Hitler's Nazis did, it was too late to do anything about it but grieve.
By the time we figure out we've been successfully lied to about what Mohamed Atta was doing in the U.S.—and what his presence here had to do with importing heroin from Afghanistan— it will be too late to do anything about it.
For some, it’s already too late: the 4000 American soldiers killed in a needless war in Iraq, for example, that might not have been rammed through so easily if the truth about the terrorist conspiracy in Florida had been better understood.
And too late for the Iraqis who died too, even though the blood that was spilled on September 11 2001 was not on their hands.
Some of that blood, though, is on Rudi Dekkers' hands. I think he knows it, and has been running away from it.
I guess he'll just have to live with it.