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Philadelphia plane hoax: An arrest in phone call that started it

September 07, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan, head of the Philadelphia Police Department's counter-terrorism unit, tells reporters that a prank call was received by authorities. The suspected caller has been arrested.
Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan, head of the Philadelphia Police Department's… (Clem Murray / Philadelphia…)

Christopher Shell will never forget his 29th birthday, celebrated to the beat of a bomb threat and, later, being jailed on drug charges. Law enforcement authorities in two states and 73 other passengers and crew members who just wanted to take a plane from Philadelphia to Dallas will also remember.

By Friday morning, Kenneth W. Smith Jr., the boyfriend of Shell’s ex-girlfriend, was in custody in Pennsylvania, charged with making a false threat against a U.S. Airways plane on which Shell was flying to Texas to mark his birthday. Smith said he made the telephone call to get back at Shell, who had posted a compromising picture of the girlfriend on Facebook, authorities said.

Shell, meanwhile, was in custody in Texas, being held on two misdemeanor drug warrants.

Thursday was Shell’s 29th birthday and he was planning to fly from Philadelphia, where he currently lives, to Texas, where he's from. He boarded U.S. Airways Flight 1267, which left at 7:39 a.m. bound for Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

Unbeknownst to Shell and the other passengers and crew, Philadelphia Airport Police had received a telephone call at about 7:20 a.m. The caller, who gave a false name, said that Shell was scheduled to fly to Texas and was carrying “liquid explosive” on him. Officials, including the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration, the Philadelphia bomb disposal unit and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, scrambled to locate Shell, who was in the air. The plane was contacted and ordered to return to Philadelphia International Airport after more than an hour in flight.

Back on the ground, the passengers and luggage were removed from the plane, which was searched. All were cleared and the flight to Texas was resumed.

Shell, who was taken off of the plane and interviewed, denied having any explosives. Officials said he consented to be searched; his cellphone and computer were also searched. He too was cleared and allowed to fly to Texas.

But during the interview, Shell told authorities that he believed “his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend 'Kenny' were responsible for making the phone call,” according to an investigative affidavit filed in Philadelphia by an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Text messages revealed a series of hostile exchanges, authorities said.

Authorities tracked down the 26-year-old Smith at his workplace.  He was read his rights and interviewed, officials said.

Smith reportedly admitted making the call after he and other people discussed a plan to implicate Shell in drug-carrying. Smith “advised that when he woke up on September 6, 2012, he walked to a payphone and called Philadelphia Airport Police. He said that when he called, he used the term 'liquid explosives.' Smith stated that his motive for doing so was to 'avenge' [Shell’s] ex-girlfriend, of whom [Shell] had posted a compromising picture on Facebook.”

Smith, of Philadelphia, was charged with conveying false information that interfered with aviation and using an instrument of commerce, a telephone, to do so. He was expected to make an appearance in federal court on Friday afternoon. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. He might also be liable for restitution, including the costs of the delayed flight.

Though uninvolved in the security hoax – except as a victim – Shell, too was in jail Friday.

When he arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, he was arrested on two old misdemeanor warrants involving marijuana possession charges. A Collin County sheriff’s spokesman, Lt. John Norton, said Shell could be released after posting a $3,000 bond.

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Join Michael on Google+. Email: michael.muskal@latimes.com

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