Mother can’t fathom why teen stowed away

Tested by notion of fall from plane

“I think it was something that was building that nobody actually saw or knew about.” said, Jonette Washington, Delvonte Tisdale’s mother. “I think it was something that was building that nobody actually saw or knew about.” said, Jonette Washington, Delvonte Tisdale’s mother.
By Maria Cramer and Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / December 14, 2010

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As Jonette Washington prepares a private service to remember her 16-year-old son, Delvonte Tisdale, she remains mystified by his apparent decision to flee his father’s home in North Carolina and climb into the wheel well of a commercial airplane.

“My first instinct was it can’t be true,’’ Washington said yesterday in an interview from her Baltimore home. “He wouldn’t do anything like that. He has no reason to do anything like that. All he had to do was pick up the phone and say, ‘Mommy, I’m ready to come home,’ and I’d go get him.’’

Tisdale and his younger brother and sister had been living with their father for a year and a half, and although Anthony Tisdale, a chef, was stricter than she was, his relationship with the children seemed generally good, Washington said.

Why Delvonte Tisdale left around Nov. 15 as everyone slept — and, according to authorities, sneaked into a US Airways plane bound for Boston — is a puzzle that may never be solved. A spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating said yesterday that investigators scoured his family’s computer and cellphone — Tisdale did not have his own — and found nothing that indicated he planned to do something so drastic.

On Friday, Washington will hold a small service at her home, where she will gather with close friends and family and tell stories about her son.

She said she will make his favorite dish, fried chicken and potatoes, and put out a yellow cake with white icing. A picture of Tisdale in his ROTC uniform will be iced onto the cake. He will be buried in Baltimore, Washington said.

Washington, a 35-year-old nursing student, said she accepts what authorities are telling her but cannot reconcile their conclusions with what she knew of her son, whom she described as a quiet, stable boy whose wildest behavior had been to once cut school.

Contrary to reports, she said, he never ran away from home, but he had been more aloof in recent weeks.

“I think it was something that was building that nobody actually saw or knew about,’’ Washington said. “Just sounded like something was building and made him get fed up and he was just tired and wanted to leave.’’

Authorities from Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the federal Transportation Security Administration, and US Airways declined yesterday to say how Tisdale managed to get onto the tarmac and climb into a Boeing 737 undetected.

“Airport security is a multilayered process and every facility is different, based on how the facility works,’’ said Haley Gentry, an airport spokeswoman.

The boy’s family said they have no idea how Tisdale got to the airport, about 18 miles from his home, or if he had any friends who worked there.

In a statement, officials at the Charlotte airport said they were told on Dec. 1 by the Federal Aviation Administration that Massachusetts investigators would be examining two US Airways planes.

A US Airways spokesman referred questions to Massachusetts authorities.

David Traub, Keating’s spokesman, said that the Norfolk district attorney has no jurisdiction over airport security.

None of the images examined in the surveillance videos from the airport so far has shown Tisdale crawling into a plane’s wheel well, Traub said. An exact cause of death has not been released; officials are awaiting the medical examiner’s final report.

Fingerprints left on greasy parts of a plane’s wheel well have been photographed and digitally enhanced in the hopes they can be identified, said David Procopio, spokesman for Massachusetts State Police, who have been investigating the case with Milton officials since Tisdale’s battered body was found on a quiet Milton street Nov. 15. Officials said Tisdale apparently plunged to the ground as the plane opened its landing gear.

Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot who writes the “Ask the Pilot’’ column for, said, “We can have all the security in the world and short of turning the airport into a fortress, there’s always going to be a way for someone who is resourceful enough to find his way around security.’’

While it is unclear how the teenager bypassed security, Smith said the TSA exempts ground workers from the same security checkpoints, with metal detectors and X-ray machines, that pilots, flight attendants, and passengers are required to pass through.

Tisdale had never flown in his life, according to his mother. His father drove him and his siblings from Baltimore to North Carolina, where they went last year so they could get to know their father, whom they had not seen in years, Washington said.

“He was afraid of heights,’’ she said. “He didn’t even like going in a building that was high.’’

He was passionate about the Air Force ROTC program at his school, but his dream was to be a Marine, Washington said.

She said she last spoke to him on Nov. 8, his birthday. She was planning on visiting her children for Thanksgiving and Tisdale wanted her to meet his ROTC friends, Washington said.

Nothing seemed wrong, Washington said, but a couple of his friends told her later that he had been wanting to come back to Baltimore.

“All of a sudden he started becoming distant,’’ she said.

Anthony Tisdale said he was too distraught to speak yesterday.

On Saturday, he held a memorial for his son at a Charlotte church, said the Rev. James Woodson, the family’s pastor when they lived in Greensboro.

About 50 people came to mourn the teenager. His ROTC classmates presented Anthony Tisdale with a framed picture of his son in uniform.

The moment reminded the father of something his son once told him, Woodson said: “I want you to keep a picture of me because someday I’m going to be great.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at Shelley Murphy can be reached at