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No terror, no bombs -- they even paid tolls

Three Arab-Americans originally suspected of being terrorists are now cleared of everything, even a $126 toll offense.

©Associated Press

September 21, 2002


Three Arab-Americans originally suspected of being terrorists are now cleared of everything, even a $126 toll offense.

NAPLES -- A videotape clears three men who were detained as terrorism suspects of failing to pay a highway toll shortly before they were stopped by a sheriff's deputy.

Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter said he voided a $126 citation after a video showed the drivers of the two vehicles stopping to pay the toll.

A tollbooth attendant first told authorities that one driver, Kambiz Butt, 25, ran the gate, but she changed her account after seeing the video.

The tollkeeper was nervous about seeing the car mentioned in a police bulletin about a suspected terrorism plot. The video shows her trying to flag down someone to alert them to the car, Hunter said.

The threat was a false alarm.

Butt and Ayman Gheith, 27, both of the Chicago area, and Omar Choudhary, 23, of Independence, Mo., were medical students on their way to a South Miami hospital for training. They were pulled over Sept. 12 on Alligator Alley, the part of Interstate 75 that is the main east-west route across South Florida. After bomb-sniffing dogs alerted for explosives, the men were detained 18 hours for questioning and their vehicles were searched. Nothing was found, the men denied wrongdoing and they were released.

Florida authorities were alerted after a Georgia restaurant patron said she thought she heard the men joking about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and indicating that another terrorist event was looming on Sept. 13.

The detention of the students, all U.S. citizens of Arab descent, has been criticized by Arab-American groups. After the episode, much of which played out on national television news, Larkin Community Hospital decided they were no longer welcome to train there. A hospital official cited a flood of hostile e-mails in saying the men's presence would cause safety concerns.

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