Rigoberto Alpizar did not even want to get on American Airlines Flight 924 from Miami to Orlando, Fla., last week. And just minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart, he decided to get off. "I heard an argument with his wife," said John McAlhany, who was seated in the center of the plane, several rows ahead of Alpizar and his wife Anne Buechner. "He was saying 'I have to get off the plane.' She said, 'Calm down.'" Instead, Alpizar got out of his seat and, clutching a backpack, ran off the plane. Two federal air marshals onboard the flight followed him onto the Jetway, and within a minute, after Alpizar's wife cried out after him, "He's sick. He's got a disorder," they fatally shot Alpizar outside the plane's door.
Tragically, what appeared to the air marshals to be a threat to passengers turned out to be the irrational behavior of a man with bipolar disorder who had stopped taking his medication. It was the first use of lethal force by an air marshal since 9/11, and just as happened after last summer's shooting of a man police thought was acting suspiciously on a London subway, questions quickly arose about why the deadly shooting had happened and how others can be avoided.
The major controversy centered on whether Alpizar said he had a bomb as he rushed off the plane. Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, said Alpizar "was carrying the backpack and walking down the aisle yelling 'I've got a bomb in the backpack.'" But several passengers recall events differently. "I never heard the word bomb on the plane," says McAlhany, a construction worker from Sebastian, Fla., who notes, "I don't think they needed to use deadly force with the guy. He was getting off the plane." Jorge Borrelli, an Orlando architect who was also on the flight, says he thinks Alpizar may have feared being the victim of a terrorist attack. He remembers hearing Buechner say after the shooting that her husband thought there was a bomb on the plane and felt he had to get off. Says Borrelli: "He didn't have the appearance of being menacing."
Indeed, according to Alpizar's neighbors in Maitland, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, he was an easygoing guy. They recall Alpizar and Buechner as a close couple often seen jogging and biking together. Born and raised in Costa Rica, Alpizar, who was 44, worked as a paint salesman at Home Depot and became a U.S. citizen several years ago. "He was very American," says Louis Gunther, whose house is directly across the street from Alpizar's. "He loved it here. He has a flag up in his backyard all the time." But Gunther and other neighbors say they were not aware of Alpizar's mental disorder, which does not surprise some mental-health experts. About 2.3 million Americans have bipolar disorder, a condition in which a person's mood can swing from depression to euphoria. But "there is still a stigma about saying 'I have a mental illness,'" says William Pollack, a psychologist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., who has consulted for the Secret Service.