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White House backs air marshals' actions

Marshals', witnesses' accounts differ on jet bomb threat claim

Rigoberto Alpizar had bipolar disorder, according to his mother-in-law.



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Department of Homeland Security

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One day after federal air marshals shot and killed an unarmed airplane passenger in Miami, Florida, the White House defended the marshals' actions.

"From what we know, the team of air marshals acted in a way that is consistent with the training that they have received," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters at Thursday's briefing.

The two air marshals said Rigoberto Alpizar had made a bomb threat.

McClellan said the agents acted Wednesday to protect other passengers.

"It appears that they followed the protocols and did what they were trained to do," he said. (Watch some non-lethal alternatives -- 1:32)

"Air marshals receive extensive training, some of the most extensive of any law enforcement agency, and we are very appreciative for all that our air marshals are doing to protect the American people," McClellan said.

McClellan also said that a "standard investigation" was under way and noted that investigations help officials "learn lessons and apply those to future training and protocols."

The two marshals who fired at Alpizar were placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation, the air marshal service said.

Both became federal air marshals in 2002, Adams said, and are based in Miami. One was a border patrol agent for four years, the other was a customs inspector for two. Both had unblemished records.

Alpizar had boarded American Airlines Flight 924 in Miami to fly to Orlando, Florida. The 44-year-old Maitland, Florida, resident was on his way home.

"Rigo Alpizar was a loving, gentle and caring husband, uncle, brother, son and friend," Jeanne Jentsch said said of her brother-in-law.

"He was born in Costa Rica and became a proud American citizen several years ago. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him."

Standing next to other family members Thursday, Jentsch would not take questions from the reporters outside her Maitland, home and asked the media to leave her property and respect her request for privacy.

Questions about bomb threat

Investigators are trying to piece together the final moments before the shooting as questions are rising about whether Alpizar made a bomb threat.

The marshals say Alpizar announced he was carrying a bomb before being killed.

However, no other witness has publicly concurred with that account. Only one passenger recalled Alpizar saying, "I've got to get off, I've got to get off," CNN's Kathleen Koch reported.

No explosives were found onboard the aircraft. It was the first time a federal air marshal fired a weapon at someone since the program was bolstered after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, said Alpizar had run up and down the plane's aisle yelling, "I have a bomb in my bag."

Adams said Alpizar then fled the aircraft and marshals confronted him on the boarding bridge.

"They asked the gentleman, 'Drop your bag, drop your bag. Come to the ground. I'm a federal law enforcement officer. Police. Drop your bag,'" Adams told CNN.

"He failed to comply with their commands, continued approaching the air marshals claiming he had a bomb in his bag. And then they ordered him again down to the ground. He didn't."

The marshals fired two or three shots when Alpizar appeared to reach into his bag, Adams said.

"Based on their training they had to take the appropriate action to defuse the situation to prevent a danger to themselves and also passengers in the terminal," Adams said.

One law enforcement source said the backpack had drawn attention because Alpizar wore it over his chest, not his back.

Passengers say man was agitated

Alpizar's wife, Anne Buechner, tried to help her husband.

"She was just saying her husband was sick, her husband was sick," said passenger Alan Tirpak. When the woman returned, "she just kept saying the same thing over and over, and that's when we heard the shots."

Tirpak said he didn't hear Alpizar say anything.

Another passenger, Mary Gardner of Orlando, said she also overheard Buechner. "I heard her say, 'He's bipolar. He doesn't have his medicine,'" Gardner recalled. (Watch passenger's account: 'Something going on wasn't right' -- 3:21)

Gardner said that the couple had quarreled before the shooting.

Ellen Sutliff, who said she sat near Alpizar on the flight into Miami from Quito, Ecuador, described him as agitated even then. His wife kept coaxing him, saying, " 'We just have to get through customs. Please, please help me get through this,' " according to Sutliff. (Watch video surveillance tape of the man in the Ecuador airport -- 1:34)

" 'We're going to be home soon, and everything will be all right,' " Sutliff quoted the wife as saying.

Passenger Mike Beshears recalled Alpizar running off the plane clutching a bag, chased by a man in a Hawaiian shirt.

That man turned out to be one of the two air marshals.

Like Tirpak, Beshears said he did not hear Alpizar say anything. "He just was in a hurry and exited the plane," he said.

After Alpizar ran off the plane, his wife pursued him part of the way down the aisle, then returned to her seat saying her husband was sick and she needed to get his bags, Beshears said.

"After she passed back toward her seat ... a number of shots rang out -- at least five, up to six, shots rang out," Beshears recalled.

Alpizar's mother-in-law told CNN affiliate WKMG that he suffered from bipolar disorder.

Symptoms for the manic-depressive illness, during its manic stage, can include increased energy, activity and restlessness; extreme irritability; poor judgment; and provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

There are often periods of normal behavior between the manic and depressive stages, and the disorder can be stabilized with medication, the NIMH said.

CNN's Elaine Quijano contributed to this report.

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