"I've been living 9/11 every day for the past 10 years," Dekkers says. He quickly adds, "But I'm not a victim like those who lost someone on that day. I can't imagine what they go through every day."
Its hard not to get the impression that Dekkers is feeling a little hang-dog these days.
A decade after terrorists did the unthinkable, the former owner of the South Florida flight school where two of the terrorists trained says "he's still paying the price,"reports NBC's local affiliate in Miami.
"Dekkers, now 55, didn’t lose any loved ones in the 9/11 attack. But he says the financial losses and the losses to his reputation have been staggering.”
"Dekkers says, 'The last ten years have been bad.'"
He's lost between $4 and $5 million on his aviation businesses, and $12 million total, he figures, because of his association with the terrorists.
He is currently in the middle of a media blitz to promote his book. In each of the half-dozen news and TV interview clips we've screened, he talks about how much money the 9/11 attack has cost him.
"I can't get a loan, I can't even get a normal job. If I apply for a job, they never get back to me,” he said. “One time, I got a letter that a guy said, a firm said 'we can't handle you because you're involved in 9/11.'”
It's almost all he talks about.
I hadn't planned on ever writing the name "Rudi Dekkers" again. But then I read a transcript of one of Dekker's sit-down interviews on his current book tour.
You know how it goes. "Every time I try to get out they try to pull me back in."
But the story Dekkers' tells a local Wink-TV news anchor is as far removed from the truth as you can get on a planet this size.
For example, in the days and weeks after the attack, one big question that didn't get answered was who or what brought them here. Why not first learn to fly in a more forgiving environment, like, say, the Sudan?
The answer was always the same. Because Florida has cheap flight training. It was a litanty.
It resolved all doubt.
But when the U.S. released the Atta and Al-Shehhi INS Students for Vocational Studies paperwork, it showed that Atta and Al-Shehhi paid Huffman a very fancy $27,300. for the privilege of learning to fly. Each.
"You can get a pilot's license for one quarter of that price, “scoffs Tom Hamersley, who was briefly their flight instructor at Jones Aviation in Sarasota.
So. There's that.
Unbelievable. But Everywhere
He was ubiquitous on television. He did more than 2000 interviews. Picture a Dutch Larry King.
He did a lot of the heavy lifting, narrative-wise.
More than anyone else, it was Dekkers who told us who the hijackers were, what they were doing, and what they were like.
At the same time aviation executives in Southwest Florida who knew him and had worked with him were cautioning about a tendencu to play fast and loose with the truth.
“It’s common knowledge around the airport that you can’t believe what he says,” said Coy Jacob, who owned an aviation dealership next door to Huffman Aviation at the Venice Municipal Airport. “He doesn’t have a lot of credibility.”
Charlie Voss was Huffman Aviation's bookkeeper. He and his wife Drusilla housed Atta and Al-Shehhi for almost a week when they arrived, till it became too got to be too much for Charlie's wife. Yet he told us emphatically not to consider him as ever having been “even a short-time friend of Rudi’s.”
“I don’t have too much to say about him. But if his lips are moving, he’s lying," said Voss. "And if he’s not lying, his lips ain’t moving.”
In the frenzied days after the 9/11 attack, dozens of journalists milled aimlessly at Huffman Aviation waiting for someone to tell them the shot. With a handout, please.
They didn't have a clue about Dekkers’ shady past.
A Pulitzer to the Sarasota Weekly Planet
Only one local reporter noted how often Dekkers’ story was changing.
“Would it be reasonable to expect Dekkers to give the same information to every news outlet?” asked Rochelle Renford in the Sept. 29, 2001 Sarasota Weekly Planet.
“Perhaps. But that was not the case. When Dekkers first appeared before the press on the day after the attack, this is what he said: He didn’t know the suspects. He wasn’t the one who took their money so he was unsure how they had paid for their training.
He didn’t see their passports so he wasn’t sure where they were from. He denied having had many interactions with them at all.
“On Wednesday, he told some reporters, including me, that his interaction with the two suspects came from a couple of brief conversations when he passed them in the halls,” Renford wrote. “His employees had dealt with their enrollment.”
“But by Sunday’s reports, Dekkers was serving up anecdotes about the two men, telling one reporter, ‘He sat right there last year when he came to talk to me about taking lessons here.’”
Making it up as he went along.
"On the day after the attack a reporter from the New York Times asked Dekkers about reports that the two men (Atta and Al-Shehhi) were from Germany,"
“Didn’t it strike you as odd that they were from Germany? They didn’t look German, did they?”
“Don’t tell me what people tell you,” Dekkers barked in response. “I have never heard that they’re from Germany. I have never heard that they speak German.”
“Dekkers gave a different answer on Larry King Live. Now he did know where they were from… Dekkers now recalled that Atta told him he had come from Germany. But when Dekkers, a Dutch native, began speaking to Atta in German, the Middle Eastern man just got up and walked out of his office. Dekkers said he found it odd.
“Whereas on Wednesday he’d blasted a reporter for asking about a German connection,” wrote Renford, “on Thursday he told me an anecdote about one of the suspects saying he was German.
“Dekkers wasn’t just remembering new details,” Renford concluded. “He was learning how to tell a story.”
Why Rudi Dekkers can't stop lying is because its so easy. Reporters never seriously question him.
And we've always wondered why.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune described Dekkers' suffering, and its cause. Mostly, once again, it was me.
"One of the more controversial figures to emerge was Rudi Dekkers, a Dutch native and owner of Huffman Aviation. Once the public learned that hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained at Huffman, Dekkers was soon defending himself from conspiracy theorists who believed he was somehow involved in the plot.
I'm the unnamed "conspiracy theorist Whose-Name-Cannot-Be-Said who has reported, doggedly, on Rudi Dekkers. This was news to me. But I've never entertained the notion that Dekkers was "somehow involved in the plot."
The August 28, 2011 St Petersburg Times story on Dekkers was headlined: "'I Was a Victim TOO' says author whose flight school trained 9/11 terrorists."
"There were also thousands of calls and e-mails, some from Americans who threatened to kill Dekkers, a foreigner himself. And although he said he barely knew either pilot, there were sensationalist Internet claims that he was friends with Atta and even went with him to a strip club shortly before 9/11."
That's me too.
"Gold Rolex. Armani suit. Deeply tanned"
I learned of Atta and Rudi Dekkers forays into Sarasota nightlife when I visited the offices of Venice Yellow Cab, on the odd-chance anyone there might have an interesting anecdote about any passengers they'd had whose pictures were now on television.
I learned that the Venice day driver, Bob Simpson, had been called in by the FBI several days after the attack. His cab had been spotted by a surveillance cam at Orlando Executive Airport, he told me when we met, while he was waiting, with Mohamed Atta, to pick up a wealthy Saudi businessman arriving via private jet.
Cabbie Bob Simpson knew Rudi Dekkers well. He often picked up flight students arriving at the airport, he said, on Rudi Dekkers instructions, driving them to Huffman Aviation.
He said, "I picked up a wealthy Saudi businessman for Dekkers several times at the Orlando Executive Airport. Several times."
In an exchange captured on camera, he said “I also picked up Rudi Dekkers and Mohamed Atta, and gave them a ride to James Place ( a restaurant) on the island. They knew each other well, really well, they were friends. Rudi and Atta."
Simpson said the FBI contacted him three days after the attack, and told them what he could about the rich Saudi businessman.
"He had lots of wealth showing, Armani suit, gold Rolex, briefcase, rough-texture dark skin."
"They (the FBI) had specific and direct questions. They were focused on the Middle Eastern gentleman who owned the Kwik-Check in Venice, and his contacts with the wealthy Saudi businessman I’d picked up at Orlando Executive Airport when he flew in on a private jet at the end of December with his wife."
"They asked nothing about Rudi Dekkers or Huffman Aviation, or any contact Rudi may have had with Atta and Al-Shehhi, or anything about the summer of 2001."
In Dekkers hometown of Naples: A tough crowd
But sometimes—sometimes—he has difficulty reading parts of it, because of the emotions it stirs up.
We weren't there, do we couldn't to tell whether he clutched at his heart at this point or not.
Dekkers' a former Naples, FL resident, did an interview with his hometown Naples News.
"Dekkers, now 55, didn’t lose any loved ones in the 9/11 attacks. But he says the financial losses and the losses to his reputation have been staggering."
The book glosses over or flat out doesn't even mention the less savory aspects of Dekkers known history:
- A computer company he started went bankrupt.
- A Dutch soccer club accused him of reneging on a pledge to sponsor an event.
- He was convicted of tax fraud.
- He fled the Netherlands, leaving behind a pregnant wife.
- After a short-lived venture selling mobile phones, he moved to Cape Coral and went into the swimming pool business.
- Florida State regulators fined him $2,500 for falsely passing himself off as a licensed pool contractor. He has yet to pay the fine.
- A popular Dutch TV show called Spoorless re-unites people with loved ones they thought they'd lost. They did a show on Rudi Dekkers and his then 22-year old son in Amsterdam, who'd never been to the States, and who had never met his father.
Dekkers refused to meet with him.
I hadn't planned on ever writing the name "Rudi Dekkers" again. But then I read a transcript of Decker's sit-down interview with Wink-TV, and was forced to re-consider…
Because Dekkers told Wink-TV in Fort Myers Florida a story that doesn't bear even a passing resemblance to the truth.
"Before September 11, 2001, a Dutchman by the name of Rudi Dekkers was on top of the world," says the narrator. "His Florida flight school was booming, and the money was flowing. But after the attack, his name became synonymous with the worst terrorist attack in American History."
"Before 9/11 I was on top of it, says Rudi Dekkers. "I owned an airline, a start-up airline, called Florida Air, I owned two flight schools, two charter corporations."
"I was flying people left and right. I was on top of the world."
"Not just threatened with eviction. Threatened with eviction again."
At the time Dekkers is speaking with such fondness about being so "wealthy" (his estimates of his pre-9/11 worht range as high as $12 million) his "business," Huffman Aviation, wasn’t making enough money to pay their rent at the Venice Airport.
Rudi Dekkers was regularly the subject of embarrassing headlines in the local Venice Gondolier.
“Huffman Aviation Inc., has had problems in the last few months with the city of Venice, Sarasota County and the state of Florida," the Gondolier reported. "But the school keeps flying."
Dekkers had serious problems on the lessee-owner front. He was a deadbeat. The Gondolier's cringe-making May 12, 2001 headline was "Huffman Rent Is Late Again”
"When Huffman Aviation paid three months of overdue rent last Friday, company president Rudi Dekkers said the rent wouldn't be late again. "No, we won't have this any more," he said during an interview last Friday."
Again. The headline said Dekkers rent was–not just late–but late again.
Thus began a saga that was a regular item in the Gondolier until Dekkers became current in Huffman Aviation's rent. That was three weeks before 9/11.
As the months had passed, the stories had become even less flattering.
"Huffman Aviation Inc. is again on notice from the city to catch up on its rent payments or face eviction from the airport," the paper reported on June 9, 2001, three months before the terrorist attack.
“City threatens lessee with eviction, again”
In late July, Dekkers’ rent status was unchanged. What had changed was that the Gondolier was running out of different ways to say it.
“For the sixth straight month, Huffman Aviation, Inc., has failed to pay its rent to the city on time,” the paper reported.
When Huffman finally got caught up on its rent in August, it actually made the news.
The headline was “Huffman pays rent.”
“I don’t think I knew anything at all about Rudi, even his taking over of Huffman, until April or maybe early May when he missed a rent payment," Gondolier editor Bob Mudge told us.
"He was behind on several months rent and being threatened with eviction."
On the day after the 9/11 attack, the Gondolier's first headline about the flight school read:
“Huffman Aviation no stranger to headlines.”
A bad check. Another. Then a quick trip overseas.
Their characterization of Dekkers as a fast-talking con-man left no one shocked.
“I’ve certainly had occasions when Mr. Dekkers had told me something that turned out not to be true,” said Venice Gondolier Editor Bob Mudge with a wry smile.
Rudi Dekkers’ erratic cash management had led to certain idle speculation among local aviation executives. “Rudi would write a lot of bad checks, disappear for a while, and come back with lots of cash,” one airport exec recalled.
In the blink of an eye, they noticed with interest that Dekkers could go from dead broke to flashing a big roll. His financial profile would seemingly change overnight.
“I can recall times when Dekkers owed money to everyone at the (Naples) airport. And then he would leave town for three weeks or so in the Lear, and come back flush.
"Huffman Aviation was a little jewel when he bought it, and it had a really good reputation,” said another. “He took a profitable business and ran it right into the ground. So he’s got a business that’s losing money hand over fist, and yet he was awash in cash."
"It just doesn’t add up right.”
There was a major revelation in the Naples News about what was a big story at the time: Dekkers crash in a helicopter into the Caloosahatchee River while enroute to a showdown meeting with partner Wally Hilliard.
While his helicopter sat in shallow water, he says he decided to let himself die. "I knew I was insured for $5 million, and my family needed that.”
In the space of little more than a week, Dekkers River, learned he would be arrested on felony fraud, signed over "his" flight school to its true owner, Wally Hilliard, and crashed his helicopter into the Caloosahatchee River. Dekkers helicopter crash seems suspicious to Dekkers. For once, he is right.
Somebody very likely wanted him dead.
After the story ran in the Naples News, the reader comments contained surprisingly frank remarks from local aviation executives. Their opinion of Dekkers seems at some variance from the kid-glove treatment he gets from major media outlets like CNN, where he was a Larry King favorite. They also call into question his competence as a pilot.
"The NTSB Report on Dekker's helicopter crash states he ran out of fuel. This can sometimes create big problems in remaining airborne."
"Setting the record straight, or cashing in? The world is a greedy place."
“I knew by now that when a group of individuals gravitated towards one another for no apparent reason, or a group of individuals inexplicably headed in the same direction as if drawn by a magnetic field…Or coincidence piled on coincidence too many times…As often as not the shadowy outlines of a covert intelligence operation were somehow becoming visible." James Garrison "On the Trail of the Assassins"
"I realize he was likely duped though he looks mighty proud in that photo. Like…I trained the clowns to bring down the World Trade Center. and now I need money to sell a book."
"What about his boat and having the men on it in Naples? They were working on his boat. Guilt by association? More then that! He had them helping him and he in turn helped them. The book should be "Treason by Association!"
"Read me 'Green Eggs & Ham' please"
"He still owes me 32,000. dollars for an aircraft engine I built for him. One of many swindled by this ahole. He not only trained the hijackers, but swindled money everyplace he turned. How many times did ICE try to deport you, Rudi, for your questionable behavior??"
"This guy has quite a history behind him here in Naples. Ask anyone connected to the Naples Airport about him. You will get an ear full."
"You mean like when he tried to pay CASH for gas and his credit and reputation was so shoddy they wouldn't sell to him?
(This, we had learned, was the truth.)
Dekkers himself, aware of the slagging, appears to step into the fray.
"rudidekkers writes: Nice to send emails when your name is not showing, you can say what ever you want, but I did not buy a engine and did not pay for it. And the helicopter, I found out about the fuel line after I had it back from the feds. This is one of the reasons why I wrote a book, the be clear. Thanks for your comments."
Retribution was swift. Sure. And acerbic.
"Your "woe is me, I'm a victim" argument is a specious bit of nonsense that only a fool like you could think is relevant. So run along now and throw your tantrum over how /awfully/ you have been treated while, if you don't mind, we'll enjoy mocking your idiocy and celebrating that there is a Hell."
"If you want to read a fairytale may I suggest something from Dr Seuss. At least you know going in that it is a fictional story with a happy ending…"
"And I thought I hung with a rough crowd back in Chi-town. Geesh!"
Horribly obnoxious to our women employees
Dekkers now says Atta was trouble at Huffman Aviation. He told NBC Miami that Atta quickly earned a bad reputation with his employees.
"He was horribly obnoxious to all of our women employees. Atta’s behavior almost got him kicked out of the flight school. He was impolite, he was rude!"
He treated people bad," adds Dekkers, "especially females."
Being horribly obnoxious to females is something Dekkers know a little bit about.
He's been troubled by allegations of sexual harassment.
The Venice Gondolier reported Dekkers had settled a suit brought by Nicole Antini, an 18-year old girl who worked at Huffman.
Records were sealed. The settlement enjoined the girl to keep silent, which she did, until he stopped meeting the terms of the agreement.
Then, just two weeks before the World Trade Center attack, Nicole Antini filed suit against him to enforce the settlement her attorneys had reached with Dekkers, and court documents in the case began to become available.
The sealed complaint became public information for the first time.
A bombshell revelation to come
Nicole Antini had quite a bit of contact with student-terrorists Atta & Al-Shehhi, according to her post-9/11 interview with the FBI. She filled out their visa paperwork. She was aware that they occasionally rented private aircraft for short trips. And Marwan Al-Shehhi ("The Nice One") once showed her a website "which played foreign music and showed people waving foreign flags."
It sounds like it might have really creeped her out.
By this time, almost all of the flight students were from other countries. Only a few were from the Sarasota area anymore. They were all "international students."
The leaked documents in her sexual harassment suit against Dekkers could leave anyone feeling a little creeped out. Nicole Antini's contemporaneous notes paint a vivid picture of what life was like at Huffman Aviation while Atta and Marwan were there.
"He came at me like he was going to hump me up against the counter," reads one handwritten note. "He said, 'I want some sweetener. Turn around you have something on your skirt.'"
It wasn't garden-variety sexual harassment, if there is such a thing. No inadvertent touch; no misunderstood word. It was an overweight middle-aged man bullying an 18-year old girl.
"I just can't help it. Can I bite into you?"
“As long as I have worked at Huffman Aviation, I have been subjected to sexual harassment by Rudi Dekkers,” her complaint stated. “I tolerated Rudi’s advances because I needed to keep my job,” she wrote, in her handwritten complaint.
One time, after pleading again for her to sleep with him, Dekkers asked, "Did you see that Russian girl I had in my office? I told her I had a job for her."
Antini answers," Where? In the pilot shop?"
"No. I told her she could give me a blow job."
A clean sweep with the broom-handle
Another time: He rubs a finger against her arm. "You know, you can see through that blouse you're wearing."
She says, "That's why there's a shirt on underneath."
Stymied, he blunders forward, revealing an uncanny mastery of the world's worst pick-up lines.
Dekkers says, "Can I buy you?"
Antini asks, "Buy me what?"
"No. Just buy you. It should be like the olden days. When I could buy you."
"Can I buy you?" might not be the absolute worst come-on ever uttered by someone of the man-like persuasion. But its in the ballpark.
“I personally witnessed him sneak up behind this kid that worked for him and stick something that looked like a broom handle up the back of her skirt,” stated one eyewitness angrily. “And Dekkers is a fat slob of a middle-aged guy. It was sick."
“Even though he’s married he was always after the young girls who worked for him to take little ‘rides’ with him in his helicopter, always for a half an hour or so at a time.”
The employee was eighteen. Her employer, 45-five year old Rudi Dekkers, the documents revealed, got a thrill from sticking a broom handle up the back of her dress.
Sexually harassing female employees as young as eighteen removes any doubt about his character. Or lack of it.
Several months later, Rudi Dekkers was invited to testify before the Congress of the United States of America on preventing future attacks.