By GREG GORDON
March 06, 2006
Now they wonder if their fleeting encounters with Zacarias Moussaoui - and their separate decisions to blow the whistle on a suspicious flight school customer - will lead to his execution.
With testimony beginning this week in Moussaoui's sentencing trial, the two men who started it all will be among those closely monitoring the developments, hoping their lingering questions about the now-confessed al Qaeda conspirator will be answered.
"It's a little weird to know that you're one of two guys that fingered him," said Sims, 66, of Fort Myers, Fla., a retired military pilot who was a contract program manager for the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minn., when Moussaoui showed up in August 2001. "There's a certain amount of, 'Am I going to be responsible for a guy being put to death?'
"I'd almost like to just see what he looks like now ... and see if his demeanor is much the same as when I met him. He comes into court and yells and screams about the terrible Americans, and America is the devil. I'd almost like to sit down and ask him, where did he get these ideas?"
Nelson, 46, a retired flight engineer in the Air Force Reserve who still is a Pan Am program manager, said that read about Moussaoui's defiant courtroom outbursts over the last four years and wondered again, "What was he up to? And how much does he really know?"
"I get the feeling more and more now that he was kind of playing us to get the training and get out of town," he said. "That's one reason why I was trying to keep a low profile in calling the FBI. I was afraid if he got one or two (flight simulator) lessons and found out we were looking at him, he'd beat his feet and be gone."
Moussaoui, 37, no longer is quite the enigma that he seemed to be while he sat in a Minnesota jail cell for 3 1/2 weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, cooperating little with federal agents who interrogated him. Since then, his significance has mushroomed in proportion.
On Dec. 11, 2001, he was indicted on six conspiracy counts charging he plotted with the Sept. 11 hijackers to commandeer U.S. aircraft and crash them into buildings. The following spring, he declared his loyalty to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in open court. And last April, he pleaded guilty to all six conspiracy counts, three of which carry a possible death penalty, and boasted that he was training in the Twin Cities for a follow-on attack in which he might fly a Boeing 747 jumbo jet into the White House.
Sims said he remains so curious about Moussaoui that he may fly to Washington and attend the trial in the coming weeks.
"It's hard to believe that the small exposure that I had to this guy has developed into something as large as it has," he said. "It's sort of like Alice in Wonderland looking down the rabbit hole. All of a sudden it's a lot more than you thought it was going to be."
The two-stage sentencing trial, which could last three months or longer, is being held in this Washington suburb solely to determine whether Moussaoui should be executed or face life in prison without parole. It will revolve around a similar what-if scenario to the one that has haunted Minneapolis FBI agents who responded to Nelson's and Sims' phone tips on Aug. 15, 2001, but could not persuade bureau headquarters to seek a national security warrant authorizing a search of his belongings and laptop computer.
The central question in the trial will be: If Moussaoui had told what he knew, could the government have prevented the suicide hijackings that killed 2,972 people?
Prosecutors say they will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that if Moussaoui had revealed the broad hijacking plot, the toll at least would have been diminished. Defense lawyers contend that Moussaoui knew less about the Sept. 11 plot than the government did - certainly not enough to help federal counterterrorism agencies derail it.
Nelson and Sims, who were honored in a U.S. Senate resolution last year for bravery that might have prevented a future attack, have differing views about the death penalty.
"Had he disclosed to the FBI what he professes now," Nelson said, "he could have maybe stopped 9/11 from ever happening, or mitigated damages. Yeah, I think he deserves the death penalty, if he is what he says he is, that he was going to fly an airplane in (to the White House)."
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