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Delvonte Tisdale's death is a tragedy that raises questions about security, DA says

Posted by Metro Desk  December 10, 2010 07:11 PM

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CANTON -- Delvonte Tisdale stowed away on a commercial jet and fell out of the aircraft as it neared Boston's Logan Airport last month, Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating said today.

He called Tisdale death a tragedy for the teen’s family – and a worrisome breach of airport security at a time when travelers are subjected to body searches and forced to use full-body scanners before they can board.

“There is great concern that with all of our efforts for security, and the almost invasive type of efforts that are occurring right now, that something like this could happen,’’ said Keating, who will be sworn in as the new congressman from the 10th Congressional District next month.

He added, “it’s a terrible tragedy what happened to this young man, but if that was someone with a different motive… if that was a terrorist that could have been a bomb that was planted, undetected. This is very serious.’’

The last person to stowaway on a flight from a US airport was on April 14 1972, when a frozen body was found in the left wheel well of a flight from San Diego to New York City, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

According to Keating, investigators have found forensic evidence – fingerprint and handprints – that indicates Tisdale snuck into the left wheel well of a Boeing 737 aircraft sometime on Nov. 14 while the plane was parked at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, NC.

The flight departed to Boston around 7 p.m. Tisdale came plummeting to the ground, landing in a quiet, upscale neighborhood of Milton around 9:30 p.m. – a neighborhood directly under the airplane’s flight path.

“It appears more likely than not that Mr. Tisdale was able to breach airport security and hide in the wheel well of a commercial jet airliner without being detected by airport security,’’ Keating said at an afternoon press conference at his office.

Keating said he discussed his findings with Tisdale’s parents today, but he declined to disclose what was said.

Calls to the Tisdale’s mother and father tonight were not immediately returned.

But other members of Tisdale’s large extended family – he had a clutch of relatives in both Charlotte and Baltimore – expressed skepticism about Keating’s conclusion that Tisdale was a stowaway.

Diane Turner, the mother of Delvonte Tisdale’s half-brother, Craig Tisdale, said she had heard the theory about the airplane days ago and does not believe it.

``Even though he wanted to go into the service, he was afraid of flying,’’ said Turner, who lives in Baltimore and considered Delvonte her stepson. ``I just can't see that happening.''

She added: "But then again, I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. Only God knows what happened to Delvonte.’’

Norman Brown, a former neighbor of Delvonte Tisdale in Baltimore who said he was like an uncle to the teenager, reacted with disbelief to the announcement that the teenager fell from a plane.

"It seems pretty farfetched to me,'' said Brown, questioning how he could have made it across the tarmac and onto a plane with the increased scrutiny of the TSA. "At a busy airport like that he'd be spotted before he would get on that plane.''

"That just doesn't sound right at all,’’ Brown said. “I think there's more to be investigated here.''

Laura J. Brown, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said it's not uncommon worldwide for stowaways to hide in the wheel wells of planes, but it's rare on planes originating in the United States. She said the last person to stowaway on a flight from a US airport did so on April 14 1972.

A frozen body was found Feb. 7, 2010, on a flight from JFK airport in New York when it landed at Narita International Airport in Japan, but it was later discovered that the body had been there for months and was that of a stowaway who had hid in the wheel well on Dec. 12 2009 on a flight from Lagos, Nigeria to New York.

According to the FAA, between 1996 and November of this year there have have been 86 stowaways involving 76 flights, of which 68 were fatal and 18 survived.

Keating called on the Transportation Security Administration and the operators of the Charlotte airport to jointly investigate – and report to the public – how Tisdale evaded security.

In a statement, the TSA it wants to jointly investigate the Tisdale incident with the Charlotte airport.

"We will work with the airport, which is responsible for access control security, to conduct a thorough investigation based on the facts and information provided by law enforcement,'' the TSA said in the statement.

Calls to the public relations office of the Charlotte airport were not immediately returned last night.

Milton Police Chief Richard Wells Jr. suggested to reporters last month that Tisdale appeared to be the victim of a vicious killer who not only took his life but also mutilated his body.

But Keating said investigators have since ruled out motor vehicle homicide, blunt force trauma, a gun shot wound, or a stabbing as causes of death. Toxicology results also came back negative.

Keating said today the state medical examiner concluded that the massive injuries suffered by the slightly built teen were consistent with falling from a "significant height" A formal cause of death has not yet been established.

Keating was asked if believed Tisdale died while in airborne in the wheel well, an area of the aircraft that is not pressurized and subject to a lack of oxygen and extremely cold temperatures well below zero.

He said it was unclear whether Tisdale had survived the flight until he fell from the plane. He said Tisdale had a plastic card on him that was shattered into small pieces, which was "consistent with being frozen" in flight.

Initially, not only was Tisdale's death a shocking example of inhuman brutality, it was also a mystery because the teen had no identification on his body when found -- except for what appeared to be a hall pass from a high school.

Officials spent days trying to learn if the teen had been reported missing in Massachusetts, but eventually learned from a relative about Tisdale's disappearance. He was last seen by his father, Anthony Tisdale, in North Carolina on Nov. 14 around 11:30 p.m.

Once they confirmed his identity, investigators still had to discover how the teen -- who had relatives in Baltimore and a sometimes strained relationship with his father -- traveled 900 miles in less than 24 hours. Keating said that mystery has now been solved.

Keating held the press conference just hours after Milton police, joined by officers from other departments, found clothing in a wooded area about a half mile from where Tisdale's body had been found.

Keating said police today recovered a red shirt and two black Nike Air sneakers in their search of the flight path in Milton yesterday and that the family has confirmed they belong to Tisdale.

Last month, police recovered two cars that neighbors saw speeding away from the area the night Tisdale's body was found. One of the vehicles was linked to a Curry College student, who has retained an attorney, but news reports have suggested there is no connection with Tisdale's death.

Keating said blood and human tissue was found on the undercarriages of the vehicles, but there was no evidence that the drivers were responsible for Tisdale’s fatal injuries.

Originally published on the blog MetroDesk.

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