Man in terror scare says woman is lying
NAPLES, Florida (CNN) -- The Georgia woman who prompted Friday's terror scare was "flat-out lying" when she told authorities she overheard three Muslim men at a restaurant laughing about September 11 and making suspicious comments, one of the men said late Friday.
"How many other people witnessed this event that supposedly took place, first of all? Did they ask the server who served us? Did they ask anybody else that was in the restaurant? How is it that one person can pick up a phone and make any statement that they will and we end up [in custody]?" said Ayman Gheith at a rest area shortly after they were released.
"What she has said is obviously a lie."
Gheith has a bushy black beard and was wearing traditional Muslim headgear. "She saw obviously the way I was dressed, and maybe she put a little salt and pepper in her story," he said.
Asked about his "suggestion" that the woman might have lied, he said, "I'm not suggesting, I'm telling you she's flat-out lying."
Gheith said he and his two friends -- Kambiz Butt and Omer Choudhary -- were all medical students heading to a nine-week course in Miami, and that's what they were talking about at the Shoney's restaurant in Calhoun, Georgia.
Asked if they made any comments about September 11, joking or otherwise, he said, "Of course not."
"Would you lose control of the conversation and joke about September 11th?" Gheith asked members of the news media. "Is that even an option?"
Gheith, a Palestinian born in Jordan, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who now lives in Chicago, Illinois. Butt was also born in Jordan and is a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Chicago. Choudhary was born in Detroit, Michigan, and now lives in the Kansas City, Missouri, area.
Gheith added: "I have one message, I think it's time for us as Americans to put down our big sticks and pick up our books and read about other people and read about what they believe before we jump to conclusions."
He said he didn't blame authorities because they were simply working off the information given to them, although he did note it was unusual to get "pulled over by 700 cops."
"The police officers were very gracious. They were very nice people. They did their job, obviously," he said.
Authorities had referred to the three men as being uncooperative, even as they were being released. Asked if they were indeed uncooperative, Gheith acknowledged authorities could have interpreted that way:
"I made it clear to them that I would prefer them not to search my car. Maybe that's what they assumed as not cooperative, and I take that as my prerogative because I know there is nothing in my car," he said.
In a later interview with CNN, the other two men, Butt and Choudhary, also categorically denied the woman's account, saying they never made any reference to September 11 in their conversations. All three said they were handcuffed and held in the back of separate police cars all night, until about 9 a.m. when they were transferred to separate vans.
They said they never saw each other while they were being held.
Authorities took the woman's account extremely seriously. They shut down a 20-mile stretch of Alligator Alley -- the major east-west connector in south Florida -- for most of the day, bomb squad units searched the men's two cars and federal authorities interrogated all three men extensively.
In the end, authorities said there was no threat, the cars were cleared, Interstate 75 reopened and the men were released. The three men climbed in their vehicles around 6 p.m. and drove away, 17 hours after they were pulled over.
At the time of their release, authorities called the incident a prank by the men, but officials were backing off that theory a few hours later.
"I think it's premature at this point in time to call it a prank or a hoax," said Carlos Alvarez, the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department.
The scare began when Eunice Stone said she overheard the three Muslim men at a Shoney's restaurant Thursday morning making suspicious comments. At one point, Stone said the bearded man said if Americans "were sad on 9/11, wait until 9/13."
Stone said she heard one of the men ask "Do you think we have enough to bring it down?" Another one of the men replied, "If we don't have enough to bring it down, I have contacts and we can get enough to bring it down."
"To me, that meant they were planning to blow up something," she said.
She called authorities, who in turn issued the bulletin for authorities to be on the lookout for the vehicles. The men were pulled over at 1 a.m. Friday on Alligator Alley, after one of the cars allegedly went through a toll booth without paying.
Asked if she thought the men were playing a joke on her, Stone said it crossed her mind.
"They were just kind of jovial about it," she said in an interview with Fox News. "My son said, 'Oh Momma, they're just messing with you.' Then I thought about it, and I said, 'Well, you know, they shouldn't be messing around like that. That's a cruel thing to celebrate September the 11th, and to think that that was something to be happy about."
CNN Correspondents Kelli Arena, Kelly Wallace, Susan Candiotti, Mark Potter and Terry Frieden contributed to this report
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