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The Week in Review

By Times staff
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

AIRCRAFT NOT DEFECTIVE: The National Transportation Safety Board says a preliminary investigation indicates the two aircraft crashed by the same pilot in an 11-hour span earlier this month had no obvious mechanical problems.

Michael Antinori, 30, was killed when his single-engine Cessna crashed into a swamp 20 miles outside Tampa. The night before, the pilot escaped serious injury after he crashed his helicopter into a home near the University of South Florida.

The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office is awaiting toxicology tests to determine whether he was drinking or under the influence of drugs.

So far, the office has said only that Antinori died of head injuries suffered in the crash. The Sheriff's Office also is investigating.

* * *

PUNCH SUSPECT DENIED BAIL: Alan Thompson, accused of killing a Sickles High student with a punch to the temple, must stay in jail without bail -- at least until more evidence about the death comes forth, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas said he would again consider bail for Thompson, 21, after hearing details of the autopsy on Christopher Fannan, 18. Fannan suffered the punch in the parking lot of the Citrus Park Steak n Shake on May 19.

Irvin suggested the punch might not have been the sole culprit in Fannan's death. He pointed to an April 13 incident in which Fannan, in an unrelated scuffle, was pistol-whipped. The pistol-whipping "may have brought about his death as well," Irvin said.

Prosecutors disagree, saying the medical examiner has ruled the previous injury did not play a role in Fannan's death.

"The end result is, this guy killed my son with one punch," said the victim's mother, Cyndi Fannan, 42.

Thompson pleaded not guilty Wednesday to manslaughter.

Arguing to keep Thompson behind bars, prosecutor Sami Thalji said Thompson was already facing two pending criminal cases at the time of the Steak n Shake incident.

* * *

HOPE DIM FOR AL-NAJJAR RELEASE: Family members of Mazen Al-Najjar, once linked to terrorism by the federal government and now facing deportation for overstaying his student visa, say they can't find a country to take him as long as he's in prison.

But during a case review Wednesday, immigration officials gave them little hope that he will be released until they find a taker. He has been held at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County since November.

Wednesday's review was the latest pitch for freedom by the Palestinian-born Al-Najjar, who has spent the better part of five years behind bars while the government attempts to make a case against him.

Sami Al-Arian, the controversial University of South Florida professor who is Al-Najjar's brother-in-law, said the family has contacted the embassies of eight countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, with little success. Al-Najjar came to the United States in 1981 from Gaza but overstayed a student visa. A onetime University of South Florida teacher, he was jailed in 1997 in Bradenton on classified evidence that the government argues links him to the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

He was released 31/2 years later in December 2000, after a Miami federal judge ruled his constitutional rights were violated by the government's refusal to divulge the evidence so that he could mount a defense. Last November, a federal appeals court upheld a deportation order for overstaying the visa and ordered him back into custody.

* * *

LAWSUIT AGAINST AL-ARIAN DROPPED: A former federal prosecutor garnered extensive publicity in March when he filed a lawsuit against University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, accusing him of using bogus charities to funnel money to terrorists.

Less than three months later, a judge has dismissed the lawsuit.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Perry Little disputed the claim of former prosecutor John Loftus, who alleged that Al-Arian personally hurt him by using state-regulated groups to solicit and launder money for terrorists in Syria.

In an unusual dismissal, Little ruled that Loftus failed to show the essence of his claim: that Al-Arian personally injured him.

After signing the dismissal Monday, the judge gave Loftus 20 days to file an amended lawsuit, stating specifically how he was hurt by Al-Arian's alleged actions and why he should be allowed to sue.

Loftus said he was not surprised by the decision, and not deterred.

Al-Arian, suspended from teaching while USF considers whether to fire him, adamantly denies any link with terrorists.

Al-Arian became the focus of death threats after his alleged ties to terrorists were aired on national TV weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. USF has delayed a decision on his status. Al-Arian was under federal investigation in the mid 1990s, when agents suspected an Islamic think tank he operated at USF was a front for Middle Eastern terrorists. He said that investigation was closed without finding evidence to support that claim.

* * *

USF TUITION RISING: All 37,500 students at the University of South Florida will pay more for college next year, with graduate and out-of-state students expected to be hardest hit.

Undergraduate students would pay 5 percent more under USF's proposed tuition increase, while graduate students would pay 10 percent more and out-of-state students 20 percent more.

The USF board of trustees' executive committee approved the increase Wednesday. The entire board still must sign off on the increases.

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