Reporters Jailed after ‘Hijack’ Stunt

 - March 15, 2007, 8:05 AM

A New York-based NBC TV crew tried to infiltrate a St. Louis, Mo., operator last month, in an attempt to demonstrate how easily terrorists could penetrate security and smuggle weapons or a bomb aboard a helicopter. However, alert staff members at Fostaire Helicopters, based in the general aviation area of the St. Louis Downtown Airport, smelled a rat and called the local police. Two journalists were arrested, handcuffed and thrown into jail.

Airport director Bob McDaniel reported that, following telephone enquiries about
a charter flight, two “Middle Eastern-looking men” turned up at Fostaire’s FBO. When office manager Arlene Thomas asked how they were going to pay for the flight, they produced cash. When asked for ID, they produced driver’s licenses from two different states. (Their car was licensed in a third state.)

“Things didn’t smell right,” said McDaniel, “so while Arlene called the FBI and local police, a mechanic took them into the hangar to view the aircraft. Meanwhile,
the helicopter they were planning to fly was blocked in by other aircraft, helping the mechanic to stall them further by having to shuffle the hangar’s contents. Before the police arrived, the two men had retrieved backpacks and odd-shaped luggage from their car.”

After the two men, later identified as John Zito from New York and Tyrone Edwards from Atlanta, had spent time behind bars, the FBI verified that they were on assignment for NBC New York. The night before they had stayed in a local hotel and purchased box cutters, Leatherman tools and other potential weapons at the local Wal-Mart using a credit card. They had hidden the box cutters in the lining at the bottom of the backpacks and the other weapons elsewhere in their baggage.

The men reportedly had maps of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis with major landmarks highlighted in yellow. They had recorded the telephone conversation with Thomas and were going to use it as part of a national news story about how easy it is to get information and directions to the location of the helicopter and then hijack it to commit a terrorist attack.

After meeting with members of the Transportation Security Administration, McDaniel said he was “absolutely outraged that NBC News is out here trying to create news rather than report news. This clearly scared a lot of folks and wasted a lot of valuable resources, and all of it was entirely unnecessary. If they wanted to learn about security, we’d have been happy to take them on a ride and show them how it works.”

After congratulating Fostaire personnel for their handling of the situation, HAI commented that members should note that this type of activity is a real possibility. “We remind our members to remain vigilant and contact the authorities if something does not seem correct.”