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Phantom Flight From Florida

Published: Oct 5, 2001

TAMPA - The twin-engine Lear jet streaked into the afternoon sky, leaving Tampa behind but revealing a glimpse of international intrigue in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on America.

The federal government says the flight never took place.

But the two armed bodyguards hired to chaperon their clients out of the state recall the 100-minute trip Sept. 13 quite vividly.

In the end, the son of a Saudi Arabian prince who is the nation's defense minister and the son of a Saudi army commander made it to Kentucky for a waiting 747 and a trip to their homeland.

The hastily arranged flight out of Raytheon Airport Services, a private hangar on the outskirts of Tampa International Airport, was anything but ordinary. It lifted off the tarmac at a time when every private plane in the nation was grounded due to safety concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Local and federal authorities will say little about the flight.

``It's not in our logs ... it didn't occur,'' said Chris White, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office in Atlanta.

For private investigators Dan Grossi and Manuel Perez, the bodyguards on the Lear, it was a trip they can't forget.

A Special Situation Grossi said Tampa police intelligence detectives called him about 11 a.m. Sept. 13, needing help with a special situation: They had been watching three young Saudi men - at least one a student at the University of Tampa - at their south Tampa apartment, and the trio was scared and wanted to go home.

Jim Harf, director of UT's international programs, confirmed one of them is the son of Prince Sultan, the defense minister.

University spokesman Grant Donaldson refused to provide details. Perez said he understood the men arrived in Tampa three weeks earlier to receive tutoring in English.

The Tampa detectives guarding the men were ordered to stay in Tampa by Police Chief Bennie Holder, so Grossi was offered the job of escorting the trio to Lexington, Ky., where the prince's relatives were buying race horses.

Lexington police Lt. Mark Barnard confirmed a Saudi relative had asked for help in getting protection for the men in Tampa. Two off-duty detectives were assigned. Tampa police records list Sultan bin Fahad as the one requesting the security detail.

But Tampa's official assistance ended at Raytheon's airport terminal.

``There was a perceived threat, and the family of the person wanted him home right away,'' said Tampa police Sgt. John Solomon. ``The job lasted about five hours. It was handled very quickly.''

`Out Of A Tom Clancy Movie' Meanwhile, Grossi had put Perez on alert and went home to wait. Both men provide security for the National Football League at Raymond James Stadium. Grossi, who retired from the Tampa Police Department in August, has worked in internal affairs and homicide. Perez, who has his own investigative company in St. Petersburg, worked for the FBI for more than 29 years and has experience in counterterrorism and as a bomb technician.

At 2:30 p.m., Grossi got the call from the police department.

``They said it was happening,'' Grossi said. ``This was out of a Tom Clancy movie.''

Grossi said he was told the clearance came from the White House after the prince's family pulled a favor from former President Bush. Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister, was part of the coalition that fought the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

To the United States, Saudi Arabia is a key component in the emerging coalition of nations in the war on terrorism.

The White House referred questions on the trip to the State Department, which denied involvement, and the National Security Council, which did not return messages.

At Raytheon airport, Grossi met with the Tampa detectives who had brought the young men. The Lear's pilot, who had flown in from Fort Lauderdale, introduced himself.

By 4:30 p.m., the twin-engine, eight-passenger jet lifted off.

``They [the trio] looked like typical college students with knapsacks,'' Perez said. ``I didn't realize the prince's son was onboard until we landed.''

Grossi and Perez recalled the strange feeling of flying in the near-empty sky, knowing of the ban on private flights.

``My first reaction to the pilot was, `We're not going to get shot down are we?' '' Perez said.

Grossi said he spoke only briefly to the prince's son.

``He wanted to leave,'' Grossi said. But he also said he would like to return, Grossi said.

In less than two hours, the Lear landed at the Blue Grass airport, where the passengers were met by Saudi security officials, Grossi said. He and Perez saw several private 747s parked on the tarmac with foreign flags on the tails and Arabic lettering on the sides.

Within the hour, the Lear took off again for Tampa with Grossi and Perez. Neither would say how much they were paid.

But the Lear was not headed back to Fort Lauderdale, Grossi said the pilot told him. It was bound for New Orleans to pick up someone who needed a ride to New York.

Grossi said he doesn't recall the name of the aircraft company providing the jet.

``Who knows who they really were,'' Grossi said. ``It was certainly somebody important to obtain clearance to fly.''

Reporter Kathy Steele can be reached at (813) 885-5437. Reporters Brenna Kelly and Elizabeth Lee Brown contributed to this report. They can be reached at (813) 885-5437.



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