by Margie Burns
American Reporter Washongton Correspondent
FAMILY OF MISSING 727 PILOT CAN'T GET ANSWERS
WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2003 -- A Boeing 727 that disappeared from an Angolan airport on May 25, 2003 is still unaccounted for, and the brother of its missing flight engineer has told The American Reporter he has grown frustrated by a lack of response from the Bush administration.
Official statements about the plane have suggested that it may be destined for use in a terrorist plot against the United States such as those carried out by the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, who flew airliners into both World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and another into a Pennsylvania field, killing all aboard the planes and nearly 3,000 people on the ground.
Benjamin Padilla, 51, is one of two aircraft personnel missing since the 727 was last seen. Early reports hinted that Padilla might have been the plane's pilot. In a phone interview, however, Padilla's brother Joseph contradicts this view. "My brother was not licensed to fly a 727," Joseph Padilla, who lives in Pensacola, Fla., said Tuesday. "He could fly small planes, but not this." "He was to be the flight engineer on the plane," Padilla continued, and was tasked with hiring the pilot and co-pilot, but not with flying the plane himself. Joseph Padilla does not know who was hired as pilot and co-pilot.
"I have spoken with the owner, though," said Florida businessman Maury Joseph, owner of Aerospace Sales and Leasing. The two men have spoken several times, most recently about a month ago, Maury Joseph said. It was Mr. Joseph who told Mr. Padilla that his brother was overseeing the crew of flight mechanics reworking the Boeing 727 for repossession. "We didn't know that," Padilla said with obvious distress and anger. "I don't know why the government couldn't have told us that. I don't know why they didn't, but they didn't." The plane had been sitting in the airport just outside of Luanda, in Angola, for 14 months. It needed an overhaul to be ready to be flown out of the country, Padilla said, and his brother Benjamin had been involved in the repairs for a couple of months. Padilla has no theory, and no clues, as to why the plane disappeared or, more importantly to him, why his brother is missing. He is distressed that government suspicion initially appeared to be focused on his brother.
"They said my brother stole it," Padilla said, but "Maury Joseph wired him about $43,000 to pay [costs], I don't know, airport fees or something," and "my brother faxed him a receipt for the money." That was the last time, so far as is known, that anyone heard from Benjamin Padilla, or at least the last time any Westerner heard from him. Joseph Padilla points out that another crew member, John Mikel Mutantu, is also missing. "He's gone, too, and witnesses seen both men get on the plane," on May 25, he says. He points out that the mechanics were in the small town for some time. "[Probably] everybody knew about it; it was the talk of the town maybe." The mystery of the missing Boeing 727 is deepened by the fact that reportedly the plane had been crudely refitted as a diesel-fuel tanker. Its passenger seats had been removed and replaced with fuel containers. The Padilla family is unreleated to Josť Padilla, an American man who was arrested last year in a foiled al-Qaida plot to build a so-called "dirty" or radioactive bomb for detonation in an American city.
In spite of the obvious hypothesis suggesting possible plans for terrorism, the Bush administration is not showing public signs of concern. The White House has not issued a public comment about the plane, which went missing shortly before President George W. Bush's scheduled visit to Africa last Spring.
According to Padilla, the government is not showing much concern privately, either.
"I contact them," he said; they don't get back in touch. Asked whether government officials have gotten in touch with the family since the plane disappeared, he said, "The only time was May 29." That day, a Florida FBI agent asked family members whether they had heard from Benjamin Padilla.
Joseph Padilla said the last time he had talked with his brother was back in January or February. At that time, Padilla was in Indonesia - "Jakarta, I think" - and told his brother in a phone conversation that he was flying cargo "all over the world."
Padilla speculates that his brother might have been working on more than one job, filling in for other engineers on some flights, possibly while waiting for parts ordered for other planes. Mr. Joseph said he did not have time to return calls for comment. Padilla said that Maury Joseph told him that his brother was in the United States last November, and that "he [Maury Joseph] took my brother over there [to Angola] himself." "Something don't seem right," Padilla says repeatedly. The government has told him that they're hunting for the plane, and that the British, French, German and African governments are involved, but nothing beyond that. "We get nothing out of the government," he said. The two officials he has spoken to most often are Jack Markey of the U.S. Department of State and Adam Cohen in the Washington offices of the FBI. They get very different reviews from Padilla. The FBI's Cohen told him, he said, "When I hear something, I'll call." They last spoke about two months ago. Cohen, a Special Agent in FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., did not return a call from The American Reporter requesting a comment. Markey, on the other hand, is "real nice," said Padilla, who praised the diplomat for "acting like he was trying to help." Markey told him, Padilla said, "'Look, we're stunned too. Here it's our job to find missing Americans, and we can't find your brother, or the plane.'" Asked to comment, Markey, who works in the State Department's Office of Consular Affairs, declined saying that all questions from press have to be routed through the public relations office. He indicated that he had tried to behave sympathetically in dealing with relatives of the missing:
"I try to treat them the way I'd want someone to treat my grandmother or mother" in a similar situation, Markey said. One hypothesis that might account for the plane's disappearance is bribery or corruption. Angola was widely reported to balk at joining the "Coalition of the Willing" in preparation for the Iraq war. At one point, the small African nation left the list of coalition countries, only to rejoin it four days later. Asked whether the 727 might have been turned into some form of payoff, Padilla answered, "With our government, you never know. They're so secretive," he emphasized. "They're so - I don't know what the right word might be - arrogant, I think," he added. "They work for us; they get paid with money from the taxpayers. But they just blow us off." Speaking the phrase "national security," he dismissed it contemptuously. "Bull," he said. "We've gotten more information, more help, from the news media than from our own government," Padilla added, mentioning television interviews he and his sister Benita had done. "That's just not right." He gave the government, especially Markey, credit for trying to find the plane. But, Padilla said, "I wish someone [in the Bush administration] would take charge, get with the family members, and tell us what's happening. But nobody's done that, and it's not fair to us." The FBI came in for special criticism from Padilla: "They came into our life" to ask about his brother, "and then they just went away again." Asked what the government is doing in the search, Padilla referred with some distress to the "reward" (amount unknown) being offered by the government. He saw his brother's name and picture "right up under Saddam and his sons," in a "Rewards for Justice" posting by the Justice Department. "I think it's kind of stupid," he added; he was told by officials that the reward is being advertised "in the Africa area" with billboards and matchbook covers, etc. Padilla is now listed and pictured as Ben Charles Padilla at the FBI's Web site under "Seeking Information": http://www.fbi.gov/mostwant/seekinfo/seek.htm. Joe Padilla made one further effort to nudge his civil servants into action: calling the Central Intelligence Agency last week. He said he found the woman he spoke to at the CIA, whose name he did not know, unhelpful.
"She said, 'I can't give you any information,'" he recalled today. "She asked me for my name, and my address, and I gave it to her, and she asked me for my phone numbers," and he complied. "Then she asked me for my Social Security number, and I said, 'I'm not giving you my Social Security number on the phone. You're the CIA; you should know that.' So then she told me I didn't need to be a 'smartass' about it." "We pay them with our tax dollars," Padilla repeated, "and she is the CIA. They do know [our Social Security numbers]."
Margie Burns is The American Reporter's Washington Correspondent.