By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
If you believe a passenger jet hit the Pentagon on 9/11, then these local 'citizen investigators' say you've been . . .
When he first saw the silver passenger jet descending too low and too fast over the Potomac River, Mike Walter figured the plane was having mechanical difficulties in its approach to Reagan National Airport.
It was just after 9:30 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and Walter, then a senior correspondent for USA Today Live, the newspaper's television division, was stuck in traffic across the street from the Pentagon, listening to National Public Radio updates about the terrorist attacks against New York's World Trade Center earlier that morning. He knew that if he didn't reach work soon, somebody else would get the choice assignment of flying to New York to cover the deadliest sneak attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. "I was getting upset because I was stuck," Walter says.
He rolled down a window to get some fresh air. That's when he noticed the American Airlines passenger jet arcing down from the sky. "I saw the jet bank and watched as it dove down toward the Pentagon. . . . I saw it crash," he recalls. "It exploded. The wings folded back, and it went right into the Pentagon. All the people around me started panicking, and when everyone said it hit the Pentagon, it registered that it was another terrorist attack."
Walter ran out of his car and waited for a USA Today photographer to show up to take pictures. Scattered pieces of wreckage lay strewn across the lawn and several light poles had been knocked down by the jet in a diagonal line pointing to the smoldering southwest wall of the building. "I saw pieces of the wreckage," he says. "There were people taking pictures of themselves with pieces of the wreckage. The next morning, I was interviewed by all the network shows."
Those interviews made Walter probably the most well-known eyewitness to what happened at the Pentagon on 9/11, which is why, a little more than five years later, in November 2006, he found himself hosting a barbecue for a group of eager young men who were making Loose Change, a documentary about the terrorist attacks. After getting a telephone call from a self-described 9/11 researcher named Russell Pickering, Walter invited Pickering and Dylan Avery, the film's director, to his house in Fairfax, Virginia.
They showed up with a couple of other people Walter had never spoken with: Craig Ranke, a fast talker with wild eyes, and Aldo Marquis, a heavyset guy who didn't talk much. The two said they were helping Avery and Pickering with research for their film. Walter chatted casually with the pair, and at one point, he realized that Ranke was surreptitiously tape-recording the conversation.
That was weird, he thought. And increasingly, so was the conversation itself. Although Pickering and Avery seemed relatively normal, Ranke and Marquis appeared to be on a mission to prove that the Pentagon plane crash never happened. They wouldn't listen to anything that contradicted this notion.
"I understand why people have certain feelings about this government," Walter says. "There are things this administration did that I'm not pleased with, but facts are facts. I was on the road that day and saw what I saw. The plane was in my line of sight. You could see the 'AA' on the tail. You knew it was American Airlines."
Marquis and Ranke simply refused to believe Walter saw what he saw. "They were saying things like, 'Are you sure the plane didn't land [at Reagan airport] and they set off a bomb?' They kept coming up with all these scenarios.
"Some of those guys [at the party] were young and nice and disaffected [about] their government," Walter concludes. "And some of them were crazy."
* * *
On a recent, sweltering summer evening in Long Beach, Ranke sips a Stella Artois and relaxes on the couch in the living room of Marquis' sparsely decorated second-story apartment. A fan hums in the background. Wearing a baseball cap, Marquis slouches in a nearby chair.
Ranke, a 39-year-old software engineer and part-time drummer for the reggae band the Stemz, has driven all the way from the condominium he shares with his girlfiend in San Juan Capistrano. His most noticeable features are a pair of intensely focused eyes and a voice that tends to rise in pitch whenever he's excited, like when he's talking about the evidence he says he's uncovered of the U.S. government's involvement in 9/11.
The 32-year-old Marquis, an amateur drummer and hip-hop MC who also digs reggae ("I find a similarity between what is said in the music and what it is I have done in regards to the Pentagon attack," he says) describes himself as "just a regular cat, hanging out with friends, family and my daughter," a framed photograph of whom beams down from above the mantelpiece.
Marquis never attended college. After graduating with honors from Carson High School, he went straight into sales and telemarketing. He is Ranke's co-worker twice over. As co-founders of the Citizen Investigation Team, they collaborate in their efforts to prove military deception about the Pentagon attack, but they also work together as software engineers in Mission Viejo.