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Florida Officials Discuss Terror Probe Into Cars

Aired September 13, 2002 - 12:28   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: You're looking at live pictures now via our CNN affiliate WFOR, a 20-mile stretch of Alligator Alley here. It's been closed for about 12 1/2 hours now, ever since police stopped a car that ran a toll booth.
Why did they stop this car? Yes, it did run a toll booth, but also, back in Calhoun, Georgia, a woman by the name of Eunice Stone overheard three men talking about -- actually, to quote what Eunice had to say, Some men that appeared to be in their mid-20s speaking English without accents but appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, wearing types of caps that you see Muslims wear and they were saying outloud -- quote -- "They think they were sad on 9/11, wait until 9/13."

That set off Eunice Stone, being sensitive to what's happened here in the United States since September 11. We're on a heightened state of alert, of course, and government officials have told all of us here in the United States to be on alert, and if we notice anything suspicious or hear anything that seems very suspicious and could be related to some type of terror activity, to notify authorities.

And that is exactly what Eunice Stone did. And she tells us about it via a radio interview on WFLD.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EUNICE STONE, WITNESS: We were seated directly across. There's only a piece of latticework between the booth. And we were seated right next to three men that appeared to be of Middle Eastern decent. And at first, you know, I went ahead with my breakfast but then they were sitting there and they were laughing. And they were talking about -- they were laughing about Americans mourning September the 11th. And I have very good hearing. And then they were saying, if they mourned September 11th, what will they think about September the 13th?

They said they had attended a party in Chicago the night before and that they needed to quit stopping because they were five hours late. And then I just naturally -- my curiously -- I just kept listening and something else was said. They were kind of huddled together there over the booth talking. And then, one guy said, do you think that will bring it down? And I looked at my son and we were just looking at each other. And he said if that don't bring it down, I have contacts, I'll get enough to bring it down. And to me, that meant, they were planning to blow up something.

(END VIDEOTAPE) PHILLIPS: And as you listen to the words there of Eunice Stone, the woman who called authorities about a possible terrorist attack on the U.S., we take you live to scene where a news conference is taking place.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

E.J. PICOLO: ... so we're on moving to vehicle number two. I also want to talk very briefly, very briefly about the outstanding cooperation we've gotten in our task force here in southwest Florida. From all the agencies involved in this, particularly in the bomb side of this thing. As you might imagine it's very meticulous and dangerous work. That's one of the reasons it's taking us this long to do the work, is because we have to rely on those guys and their judgment and experience to make those decisions.

We have the state fire marshal represented in that contingent, Collier and Charlotte county sheriff's offices, we've flown in resources from the FBI Miami, Broward County sheriff's office and also the Miami-Dade police department. So it's been an outstanding cooperative effort among several of our regional domestic security task forces and component agencies and we commend them for that effort. We expect it to be a couple more hours at minimum before the search is completed on the second vehicle. And once that is clear, we'll do a final status briefing. We may have one additional briefing before that happens but I just want to give you some of the latest information. With that I'll answer a few questions.

We're not going to answer any questions related to the specifics of the gentleman at this point.

They're being held in a van, very comfortable environment and treated well, fed and housed until we done with our investigation.

These dogs are trained to sniff certain accelerants and explosives and the dog clearly alerted in the opinion of its handler and occasionally you get false positives.

I am not a bomb technician. I said either one of those issues is possible. You probably have to go to the experts to answer that. When we're done we'll try the to get one of our bomb expert out here for you that can answer some of those very specific questions.

I am not going to talk about any evidentiary material that we may or may not have recovered.

At this point in time I can't -- I have -- I am in possession of some information related to that but I don't have -- we're not in charge of that particular side and for me to comment would be I think inappropriate.

We've got investigations ongoing in several areas of the country.

I am not going to talk specifically. But at least one of the plates does not match. It may take a couple of more hours. The search just began here very recently. Again, the status of how it proceeds will depend entirely on the bomb techs. Some of it is done by hand and the large suits that they are wearing which are very heavy and they can only stay in them for short periods of time. Others it's done by robot depending on the level of threat. Obviously they like it minimize it so they can use the bomb robot they like do that. But sometimes they can't reach certain material so they have to go back in.

We have proceeded into the second vehicle. It will take us up to several more hours to complete that search. We're really at the mercy of our bomb techs in making those decisions. We're not going to rush them in any way. We're allowing their experience and expertise and training to make those decisions. So when they get done and they tells us that second vehicle is clear, then we'll feel a little bit more comfortable.

Again, we received very specific information out of Georgia late yesterday afternoon. That information was relayed to our terrorism support center up in Tallahassee, ultimately sent out in a bullet. And Florida Law Enforcement and Collier County sheriff's offices, stopped these vehicles early this morning here in Collier County.

We're doing a very, very thorough search including the possibility of hidden compartments and other areas potential explosives could be stored.

Well, you know, just as in narcotics trafficking, there are hidden compartment in fuel tanks or hidden compartments in door panels. There's other ways to secrete things that happen in vehicles. We're looking for all those possibilities. We've got -- that's one of the reason that we're bringing in specialty equipment in here, is to help us gauge that and decide whether we have done a complete search.

The equipment that was brought in from FBI Miami, my understanding not being a technical person, understand...

PHILLIPS: You have been listen to E.J. Picolo of Florida Department of Law Enforcement They're updating us on the situation on the scene. We're now going to go to Governor Jeb Bush who's going to address what's taking place in Alligator Alley.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

GOV. JEB BUSH, FLORIDA: ... the information through our Regional Domestic Security Task Force structure. And Floridian law enforcement officers were there, prepared. And Collier County deputy sheriffs, identifying this car, stopped them. and the investigation is ongoing.

It appears that there isn't a terrorist threat as it relates to any kind of detonation devices or anything like that in the car. But in this time of heightened vigilance, I think that it is important to show that this system works.

And I'm very proud of law enforcement officers across the state that responded very well, and the citizen in Georgia deserves high praise as well.

That's the initial -- although there's still an ongoing investigation, the initial -- they have not found anything yet.

The investigation is still ongoing. It is a very methodical process, as you might imagine. And so far there have not been many devices found that should give us concern.

QUESTION: Can you explain what the dogs were in fact smelling then?

BUSH: I can't. I can't explain that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, right now we cannot comment on that. They're still continuing their investigation. We really need to give them the opportunity to complete the total investigation before we release those details.

BUSH: And that information will probably be released by the Regional Domestic Security Task Force in southwest Florida. So you'll probably be getting information from Sheriff Hunter (ph) or the FDLE head of that region.

QUESTION: Are you calling those three men suspects now, Governor?

BUSH: No. They're are not suspects. They're being detained as the investigation continues, but they're not suspects.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything about what they've told law enforcement? Or is there anything that makes them suspicious other than the initial (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that led you to them?

BUSH: Well, the suspicious information was the information overheard by very credible witnesses that checked out very well, making a mockery or laughing about 9/11 and saying that 9/13 would be -- September 13 would be -- "If you thought 9/11 was bad, wait until you see what happens on September 13," gives all of us some concern. And so, beyond that, I think the investigation is still under way. And I don't think there's any more to report.

QUESTION: Governor, would you tell people to calm down at home? What should they do?

BUSH: Yes.

QUESTION: They're at home. They're watching this right now.

BUSH: I understand. They should...

QUESTION: What would you tell them, Governor?

BUSH: What I would tell them is that for the last year we have organized this state in a way that should give people great comfort, that we have the best communication possible, that we take these threats seriously, and that people's fears should not overwhelm them. That we have incredibly trained law enforcement officers at every level of government that are working together to protect Floridians and to protect Americans.

And as I said, this is an example of how this new system worked. If we did not have this Regional Security Task Force structure in place and the terrorism center that provides the information based on good solid intelligence, we might not have been able to identify these cars. And irrespective of whether or not this ends up being a terrorist threat or not, the fact that we've organized ourselves this well should give Floridians, all Floridians great comfort. And the deputy sheriffs in Collier County really deserve high price for stopping these cars.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... whether a fourth person in Fort Lauderdale supposedly connected with these three individuals is being detained right now? Can you determine these three men are medical students that were destined to Miami?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Again, the investigation continues, and we're not commenting on this time.

QUESTION: (speaking Spanish)

BUSH: (speaking Spanish)

PHILLIPS: Governor Jeb Bush commenting on the situation that is taking place right now on Alligator Alley, a portion of a major Florida highway that has been shut down because of a terrorist -- or fears of a terrorist plot. Three men being detained right now. They are not being called suspects.

The president speaking in Spanish there, basically reiterating what he had said in English, and that is -- this is a time or governor, excuse me. Governor Bush -- it is hard to -- it is easy to mess that name up, isn't it, especially when we have a president and a governor with the last name Bush.

Anyway. Making the point that we're at a time of heightened vigilance right now, and that we're showing that our system works. That is what the governor basically had to say, and that telling Americans, telling Floridians don't let your fears overwhelm you.

They are just pulling out all the stops in making sure that this is not a high threat situation, and as you can see by the videotape and the story that we've been covering now for the past -- something that took place about 12 hours and 45 minutes ago, that it appears everything is getting under control and this situation here on Alligator Alley in Florida is calming down, and the bomb squad already clearing one car, in the process of clearing another car, of possible explosives.

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