December 9, 2005 in Nation/World

Man killed at Miami airport suffered from mental illness

Sara Kehaulani Goo Washington Post
 

WASHINGTON – The American Airlines passenger killed by air marshals at Miami International Airport on Wednesday suffered from bipolar disorder, according to investigators, raising new questions about how much training sky marshals receive in dealing with travelers with mental illnesses.

Rigoberto Alpizar, a 44-year-old Costa Rica native and U.S. citizen, was shot multiple times by air marshals after he allegedly claimed to have a bomb in a backpack strapped to his chest, local and federal officials said. The Federal Air Marshal Service said Alpizar repeatedly ignored the marshals’ orders to get down on the ground and they took appropriate lethal action because they considered him a threat.

After the shooting, police found no evidence of explosives in Alpizar’s backpack or in his checked luggage, which was exploded by police on the tarmac as a precaution. “All indications are that this was a textbook situation,” said air marshal spokesman David Adams, whose agency is reviewing the incident. “We will also supply results to our training division to see if there’s any training changes that need to be made.”

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is a mental illness that causes extreme mood swings alternating between euphoria and depression. Left untreated, it can affect rational thinking and can lead to delusions and suicidal behavior.

The image of Alpizar as a potential terrorist threat didn’t seem to square with neighbor and family accounts of the Home Depot Inc. employee who lived with his wife on a small street teeming with children in a quiet Orlando suburb. Several neighbors said Alpizar and his wife, Anne Buechner, were friendly and involved in occasional block parties.

“He’s a very gentle man, very nice,” said Jennifer Tatro, a neighbor who lives on the same street in Maitland, Fla. “I never had an uncomfortable moment with him.”

Thursday afternoon, a woman who identified herself as Alpizar’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Jentsch, gave a statement to reporters gathered in front of the Alpizar-Buechner home, saying Alpizar “was a loving, gentle and caring husband, brother and friend.” She said Alpizar was born in Costa Rica and became a “proud American citizen several years ago.”

Federal officials have not released the names of the two air marshals involved but said they both were based in the Miami field office and joined the agency in 2002. One of the marshals speaks Spanish and formerly worked for the U.S. Border Patrol while the other had worked for the U.S. Customs Service as an officer.

Several passengers aboard the Boeing 757 in Miami said that Alpizar’s wife ran after him when he rushed to the front of the aircraft and was confronted by the air marshals. Two passengers, according to media reports, said they heard Alpizar’s wife say that he was “sick” or “bipolar” and that he had not taken his medication. Thursday, Miami-Dade County Police Department investigators said they had interviewed Buechner and that “she advised that Mr. Alpizar had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”

Lydia Lewis, president of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, a Chicago nonprofit group, said police departments have been increasingly trained to work with mental heath experts in dealing with suspects who are mentally ill. Still, she said, “In this case, it was a terrible tragedy and I’m not certain all the training in the world … would have changed this case.”


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