Neighbors are in shock after an air marshal guns down a man who claimed to have an explosive

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated December 08, 2005 08:25 AM

Rigoberto Alpizar, the American Airlines passenger who was shot and killed by a federal air marshal Wednesday after he falsely claimed to have a bomb in his carry-on bag, was described by neighbors as a “nice, talkative” man whose alleged behavior was “totally uncharacteristic.”

Alpizar, 44, a Costa Rican-born U.S. citizen who lived in an Orlando suburb, was gunned down on a jetway just before 2 p.m. local time, as the Boeing 757 was preparing to leave its gate from Miami International Airport on its way to Orlando.

The incident – which is under investigation by federal authorities, who have already placed two air marshals who were involved on paid suspension – marks the first time that an air marshal has shot at anyone, Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Doyle told news agencies.

Alpizar’s wife, meanwhile, was said to have been desperate during the incident on the plane. “She was chasing after him,” said fellow passenger Alan Tirpak, CNN reports. “She was just saying her husband was sick, her husband was sick.”

The woman kept repeating herself until, finally, said Tirpak, “We heard the shots.”

As one witness, passenger Mary Gardner, told WTVJ-TV in Miami, Alpizar ran down the aisle of the plane, flailing his arms, while his wife tried to explain that he was mentally ill and had not taken his medication. “He was frantic,” said Gardner, who also recalled of Alpizar’s wife: “I heard her say, ‘He’s bipolar. He doesn’t have his medicine.'”

Ellen Sutliff, who said she sat near Alpizar, described him as agitated, even before he boarded the plane. His wife kept coaxing him, “We just have to get through customs. Please, please help me get through this,” according to Sutliff.

Looking into Alpizar’s background, the Associated Press and CBS uncovered a simple man who worked in the paint department of a home-supply store. Neighbors in his Orlando suburb described him as someone who spent his free time tending to the yard of his four-bedroom, ranch-style home.

“He was a nice guy, always smiling, always talkative,” said Louis Gunther, a neighbor who said he was watching Alpizar’s home while he and his wife were on a missionary-type trip. Of Alpizar’s newsmaking event Wednesday, Gunther said: “Everybody is talking about a guy I know nothing about.”

“This whole neighborhood is shocked,” said Alex McLeod, 16, who lives three houses down on the opposite side of the street from Alpizar. “Totally uncharacteristic of the guy,”

“We’re all still in shock. We’re just speechless,” Alpizar’s sister-in-law, Kelley Buechner, told CBS News. Relatives said Alpizar was returning from a trip to Peru. Alpizar’s brother-in-law, Steven Buechner, said Alpizar met his sister when she was an exchange student in Costa Rica. Alpizar and Buechner’s sister, Anne, had been married about 22 years, relatives said.

“Rigo was a very quiet guy,” said Charles Baez, 33, who was Alpizar’s boss at MAB Paint Store in Winter Park until Alpizar left for a job at Home Depot three years ago. “It’s very strange that he would ever do anything like this. … You never know what people go through, but he always seemed really normal to me.”

Alpizar’s plane, Flight 924, had arrived in Miami from Medellin, Colombia. The Orlando-bound leg of the journey contained Alpizar, 119 other passengers and the crew, American spokesman Tim Wagner said.

Following the shooting, investigators unloaded passengers’ bags onto the tarmac and let bomb-sniffing dogs peruse them. Police later confirmed that no bomb was found, although three other bags were destroyed in controlled explosions on the runway. They did not contain bombs.

Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, told CNN that the marshals’ actions were “appropriate. … They asked the gentleman, ‘Drop your bag, drop your bag. Come to the ground. I’m a federal law enforcement officer. Police. Drop your bag.’ He failed failed to comply with their commands. … And then they ordered him again down to the ground. He didn’t.”

Adams said that the marshals fired two or three shots when Alpizar appeared to reach into his bag.