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Sources: Probe of airline scare began in April

Possible suspect aiding investigation, authorities say

Nathaniel T. Heatwole says he was interviewed about the security scare.

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Air Transportation
Transportation Security Administration

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Authorities have been investigating suspicious packages placed aboard airliners since April but were able to track down a possible suspect only after he sent an e-mail to a federal agency last month, a U.S. government source said Saturday.

Law enforcement sources told CNN on Friday that a student at a North Carolina college admitted placing box cutters and other suspicious materials aboard two Southwest Airlines planes.

The Transportation Security Administration said the 20-year-old man was tracked down, in part, because of an e-mail sent to the TSA last month in which he mentioned items that were "linked" to the airline scare. (Full story)

The government source said two packages of similar items were found on planes in April but didn't say whether they were Southwest planes or provide other details.

The Greensboro News & Record quoted a man identified as Nathaniel T. Heatwole as saying he has been interviewed in connection with the investigation but has not been charged.

The North Carolina newspaper interviewed him from his home in Damascus, Maryland. He said he has no connection to the airline industry.

"I'd love to speak to all of this. I have a ton of stuff I'd like to say, but now is not the time," the man identified as Heatwole is quoted as saying. "I have to work with government before I work with the media."

In a statement Friday, the airline said plastic bags containing box cutters, clay that resembled plastic explosives, and bleach were found in the bathrooms of two planes Thursday during maintenance checks in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas.

The liquid was contained in suntan lotion bottles; the clay was inside Play-Doh containers, sources familiar with the investigation said.

Law enforcement forces described the person being investigated as a male student of Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.

They said he was a passenger aboard the planes, not an employee of the airline or airports. They said he is cooperating with officials, and they stressed that he has not been arrested or detained.

In a statement Friday, FBI spokeswoman Cassandra Chandler said, "This investigation is continuing and is being conducted by FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces ... in coordination with the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland. Proceedings are anticipated this Monday in United States District Court in Baltimore."

A government source said the man, who is staying in Baltimore, is not in custody. It was unclear if charges would be filed.

TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said the e-mail did not trigger the steps that could have been taken to track the man down sooner, but he added that the agency receives thousands of e-mails and phone calls daily.

To remedy the problem, Hatfield said more training is planned at the TSA's contact center that handles such communications.

CNN correspondents Kathleen Koch and Mike Brooks contributed to this report.

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