- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

BALTIMORE — Federal prosecutors said the 20-year-old Montgomery County man accused of smuggling box cutters and other contraband aboard commercial airliners faces up to 10 years in prison.

Nathaniel Travis Heatwole, of Damascus, was released on personal recognizance yesterday after his initial appearance in federal court. U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey told him not to attempt to board any airplanes and to stay away from airports while awaiting trial.

“This was not a prank. This is a crime,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio at a news conference after the court hearing.

Mr. Heatwole, a junior at Guilford College in North Carolina, was charged yesterday with carrying box cutters with blades, an 8-ounce plastic bottle containing bleach, molding clay formed to resemble plastic explosives and a box of strike-anywhere matches aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Sept. 14.

In a Sept. 14 e-mail, Mr. Heatwole sent to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), he notified the federal agency he had successfully breached security on six occasions at BWI and North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He wrote that he knowingly broke the law and was aware of the potential consequences, according to charging documents.

In the e-mail, he said his actions were “an act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public,” said the documents.

At the news conference in front of the courthouse, Steve McHale, deputy administrator at the TSA said Mr. Heatwole’s actions did not reveal bugs in the nation’s airport security systems.

“Amateur testing of systems like this do not in any way show us the vulnerability of the system,” Mr. McHale said. “It is also potentially dangerous.” He said security tests are conducted weekly by TSA agents trained to “think like terrorists.” He said federal officials were already aware of flaws in the security systems.

Mr. Heatwole secreted box cutters and other items aboard six airliners between Feb. 7 and Sept. 14, according to charging documents, but faces trial only in the Sept. 14 incident.

The initial discovery Thursday of the hidden box cutters triggered increased security inspections of all U.S. airliners. It also prompted an investigation by the FBI and TSA that led to Mr. Heatwole.

Prosecutors did not ask the judge to detain Mr. Heatwole until his next court hearing, Nov. 10, but they did ask for strict conditions for his release. Mr. Heatwole’s attorney, Charles S. Leeper, said his client wanted to be released. “It is his sincere desire to return to college and resume classes,” he said.

Mr. Heatwole did not say a word as he exited the Edward A. Garmatz U.S. Courthouse in Baltimore. He was escorted by his attorney and trailed by his parents as he walked through a throng of reporters asking him if foiling airport-security systems had proved anything.

Neighbors of Mr. Heatwole said he was a nice, clean-cut kid who kept to himself.

“I don’t think what he did was all that bad. He made his point,” one neighbor said.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, speaking during a visit to Duke University yesterday, said federal officials would review procedures to determine why it took weeks after the e-mail arrived to find the box cutters. He said that the TSA, which reports to him, gets a high volume of e-mails about possible threats, and that the decision was made that Mr. Heatwole’s “wasn’t an imminent threat.”

“This is not a good experience. This is a bad experience,” Mr. Ridge said. “But we may learn something about it that we can apply across the country.”

In recent years, federal authorities and law-enforcement personnel have acted against persons attempting to test security.

Federal authorities arrested Frederick Knaus, of Malvern, Pa., Sept. 24, 2001, for twice sneaking box cutters and paint scrapers past a security gate at Philadelphia International Airport. Mr. Knaus told police he wanted to test airport security on his own, so he could convince his wife she shouldn’t fly to Ireland as she had planned.

Mr. Knaus told authorities what he had done and was arrested. He ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of knowingly bringing banned items into a secure area of an airport. He paid a $1,000 fine and served one year probation.

Federal prosecutors considered filing charges against ABC investigative correspondent Brian Ross and 15 to 20 other ABC News employees who smuggled depleted uranium from Jakarta, Indonesia, a terrorist hot spot, to Los Angeles to test the efficiency of homeland security. The uranium went undetected.

Some people have mistakenly walked through airport security with prohibited items and still faced charges.

Ernie Miranda, of Fullerton, Calif., was arrested in October 2001 after he carried box cutters, which he used on the job, through a security checkpoint at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Mr. Miranda realized his mistake and threw the box cutters in a trash can, but he was arrested after someone notified police. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of attempting to board an airplane with box cutters.

Matthew Cella and Judith Person contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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