When Rudi Dekkers, the man who ran the flight school where terrorists who crashed airliners into the Twin Towers learned to fly was arrested for drug trafficking in Houston last week, one of the first congratulatory calls I received, after covering his continuing criminal activity for the past ten years, was from his son.
That’s right…his son. (Read more on our conversation below.)
By almost any measure, the 9/11 attack was the most spectacular event in recorded history, witnessed worldwide—live—by many hundreds of millions (some say billions) of people. For dramatic impact, nothing else comes even close.
That’s why it was so strange that the American institution which played a crucial role in the story—Huffman Aviation in the tiny retirement community of Venice, on Florida’s sleepy Gulf Coast—was completely ignored as a subject for investigative journalism by the mainstream media.
Brian Ross from ABC’s investigative unit never showed up in Venice. NBC News' Senior Investigative Correspondent Lisa Myers didn’t either. There were no sightings of Seymour Hersh; and none of Michael Isikoff, either.
And when I’d stop for a drink at the end of the day at the only decent watering hole in town, I didn’t have to step over Bob Woodward to get to the bar.
More than a decade after the attack the story remains largely unknown. To remedy that fact (at least for future generations) I will now begin filing “The Rudi Dekkers’ Dossier.”
More face time than Larry King
In the days and weeks after the 9/11 attack Rudi Dekkers was everywhere. He did more than 2000 interviews. It was Rudi Dekkers who told the world who the hijackers were, what they were doing, and what they were like. He did almost all of the heavy lifting providing the narrative about what the hijackers had been doing in the U.S.
Rudi Dekkers was on television more often than Larry King. Then, and for the next ten years, the mainstream media bought his patter hook line and sinker.
There were a few reporters who expressed skepticism. But they were local, with no national readership. One worked for an alternative weekly newspaper in Sarasota, and arrived on scene at Huffman Aviation on September 12, on the first day of the media frenzy.
In the Sept. 29, 2001 Sarasota Weekly Planet, reporter Rochelle Renford noted how often Dekkers’ story was changing.
“Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect Rudi Dekkers to give the same information to every news outlet?” she asked. “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 (the day after the attack) 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. “He said his employees had dealt with their enrollment.”
An about face once he'd been briefed?
“But by Sunday’s reports, Dekkers was serving up anecdotes about the two men, “ she continued. “He told one reporter: ‘He sat right there last year when he came to talk to me about taking lessons here.’”
"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," Renford wrote. “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.”
“But 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, he said. 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.”
"Horribly obnoxious to female employees"
During his book promo tour last year, Dekkers now says that 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, especially females."
One incident in particular gave Dekkers, he said, a glimpse into Atta’s demeanor. "I was one time in my cafe in Venice and I heard a loud noise and I looked and I saw that Atta dropped a plate on the floor, apparently for something that he didn't like,” Dekkers said.
"And I asked the waitress, 'what's going on?' [She said] ‘Well he didn't like the food, and he was waiting too long and he just dropped his plate.'"
Dekkers confronted Atta immediately, he said.
"I was mad, I told him loud and clear, ‘what the F are you doing?’ and he stood up and he left,” Dekkers said. "That was the only incident that I saw that was really rude, though other times I heard from females that he was very impolite.”
A little digging illustrated that being horribly obnoxious to females is something Dekkers knows something about.
"As long as I have worked at Huffman Aviation," said a lawsuit filed by former Dekkers’ employee Nicole Antini, "I have been subjected to sexual harassment by Rudi Dekkers. I tolerated Rudi's advances because I needed to keep my job."
Just two weeks before the World Trade Center attack Antini filed suit to force him to enforce the settlement of her sexual harassment suit, which he had agreed to settle for $15,000. The records had been sealed. The settlement enjoined the girl to keep silent, which she did, until he stopped meeting the terms of the agreement.
Tellingly, Dekkers balked at paying.
After that court documents in the case began to become available, and the sealed complaint became public information for the first time.
A walk on part in a war
Nicole Antini had had a front row seat to the terrorists, and quite a bit of contact with terrorists Atta & Al-Shehhi. According to her post-9/11 interview with the FBI, she had filled out their visa paperwork. She was also aware that they occasionally rented private aircraft for short trips.
Also, she told the FBI that Rudi Dekkers offered Atta and Al-Shehhi jobs as pilots with Florida Air, Dekkers' and Wally Hilliard's start-up airline.
Nicole Antini's contemporaneous notes from her sexual harassment suit against Dekkers paint a vivid picture of what life was like at Huffman Aviation while Atta and Marwan were there.
Employee Antini was eighteen when her employer, 45-five year old Rudi Dekkers, began getting a thrill from sticking a broom handle up the back of her dress.
"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.'"
This wasn't the terrorists' fault. Nor the fault of "sensationalistic reporting on the web."
One time, after pleading again for her to sleep with him, according to Antini's lawsuit, 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, said Dekkers. Antini wrote that Dekkers "told her she could give me a blow job."
A clean sweep with the broom-handle
Another time he rubbed his finger against her arm, murmuring, "You know, you can see through that blouse you're wearing."
Antine replied, "That's why there's a shirt on underneath."
Stymied, Dekkers blundered forward. Dekkers said, "Can I buy you?
"Antini asked, "Buy me what?"
“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.”
What about Yeslam bin Laden wasn't suspicious?
By mid-2001, the vast majority of Huffman’s flight students were from outside the U.S. Only a few were from the Sarasota area. Later it would be learned that Osama bin Laden’s brother Yeslam bin Laden, had arranged for students to attend the school.
According to the French newspaper Le Monde, Swiss police questioned Osama bin Laden’s older brother, Yeslam, a key figure in the family’s business empire, because one of his companies, Avon Air Charter, had offered flight training to clients at the Venice flight schools attended by some of the terrorists.
Yet few journalists bothered to scrape back the surface to reveal what was underneath.
Through the simple expedient of interviewing the owners and aviation executives of companies which shared the Venice and Naples Airports in Southwest Florida with Dekkers, I learned that those who worked with him were unanimous about warning me of his tendency to play fast and loose with the truth.
“He doesn’t have a lot of credibility,”said Coy Jacob, who owned an aviation dealership next door to Huffman Aviation at the Venice Municipal Airport. “It’s common knowledge around the airport that you can’t believe what he says.”
Many of Dekker's former co-workers agreed to speak for the record, like Charlie Voss, who was Huffman Aviation's bookkeeper. Voss and wife Drusilla housed Atta and Al-Shehhi for almost a week when they arrived, until it got to be too much for Charlie's wife.
Voss said, emphatically, that he had never been “even a short-time friend of Rudi’s.”
Robb Tiller is an aviation executive in South Florida. When he met Rudi Dekkers he was in business with Wally Hilliard on a start-up airline planning regular flights to Havana. And as a former Marine, he minces no words.
“I was amazed the kid glove treatment that Dekkers received. Dekkers is a liar, a cheat, and a thief,” says Tiller.
"Because I had suspicious about Dekkers, I called the embassy of the Netherlands in Washington D.C. right after the attack. They told me that Rudi was a fugitive in his native country.”
The FAA: Like the SEC, but not as nice
We heard from several credible sources that the FAA went out of its way to protect Rudi Dekkers.
An aviation mechanic who worked for Dekkers at the Naples Airport stated he had been forced, by law, to report criminal acts which he witnessed Dekkers commit.
"Dekkers did an import of an airplane," the mechanic explained. "We found dents on the front of a wing. And when we replaced sheet metal, we found ribs that were crushed, which renders an airplane un-airworthy.
“Yet Dekkers still sold the plane. And when I turned him in to the FAA, they didn’t do a damn thing."
Another aviation executive in Naples had a similar story, but this time with an ominous twist.
Dekkers had forged his signature on a repair order to indicate that required repair work on a helicopter had been completed, he explained. When he discovered his signature had been forged, he was legally compelled to report it to the FAA.
"I called the FAA to report a violation. And they warned me to leave Dekkers alone.
"I couldn’t believe it,” the executive said indignantly. “An FAA guy came out and sat me down and said: ‘I suggest you back out of this.'"
Lost son forced to remain lost
“Hello Daniel, my name is Patrick Schreur,” he wrote. “I was born Patrick Dekkers. I am the son of Rudi Dekkers. Until I read your article, ‘9/11 flight school figure a "deadbeat dad,’ I thought my story was known only in The Netherlands. Thank you for telling it.”
Patrick Dekkers’ story was aired on a Dutch TV show called Spoorloos, which reunites long-lost relatives with loved ones. His episode began:
HOST: Patrick Scheur from Deventer in the Netherlands looked on with astonishment at the drama that was unfolding live on television.
PATRICK: It was just like watching a disaster movie, the planes, the skyscrapers…
PATRICK: She asked me to turn on the TV because my father was on. I got very emotional.
I had never seen my father… He was the Dutchman that trained the hijackers to fly.”
Patrick's parents, the show related, got married in the late seventies. “My mother was three months pregnant with me when Rudi told her he was seeing someone else and wanted to break up,” he explained.
His father emigrated to the U.S., never to be heard from again.
During my investigation I discovered that, unknown to Patrick, Rudi Dekkers had been in trouble with the law. He was wanted for fraud.
A matter of "national security"
Yet when he appeared before a U.S. Congressional committee, Dekkers wasn’t forced to face critical questioning. Instead, he was asked for his advice on preventing future terrorist attacks. Why was that? Clearly not because he’s such a likable fellow.
How many people would place any credence at all to the testimony of a man who walked out on his wife when she was three months pregnant? And who–even twenty years later—refuses to acknowledge or meet his own son?
So why did the United States Congress?
One answer come to mind. "It's a matter of national security” is an excuse often used to ensure cadre members in a so-called "black op" never face criminal charges.
Could the reason we didn't long ago read about Rudi Dekkers' criminal connections in the New York Times be because the organization Dekkers' ultimately worked for at Huffman Aviation has a stranglehold on public discourse in this country?