*   *   *

Although he is in the vanguard—some would say the extreme fringe—of the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement, the driving force behind the self-styled Citizen Investigation Team doesn't recall having any suspicions about 9/11 on the day of the attacks. That morning, Marquis was sleeping at his mother's house in Carson, where he grew up. A few days earlier, he'd returned from his first trip to New York City. "Our plane had an emergency landing with burning wires on the way back to LAX," he says. "We landed at some small airport in Iowa or Idaho that wasn't supposed to take big planes."

He remembers his mother waking him up on 9/11 and telling him New York was under attack. He turned on the television and watched in horror. He doesn't recall having any suspicions about what was already being reported: Terrorist hijackers affiliated with Osama bin Laden had crashed the aircraft. "I just remember the towers burning for a while," he says. "Now that I look back in retrospect, there is no way those towers should have collapsed, but I didn't see it then."

Aldo Marquis, Craig Ranke and the tools of their truth-sleuthing trade
John Gilhooley
Aldo Marquis, Craig Ranke and the tools of their truth-sleuthing trade
Aldo Marquis and Craig Ranke's map of the "real" vs. "official" story
John Gilhooley
Aldo Marquis and Craig Ranke's map of the "real" vs. "official" story

Ranke, who attended but did not graduate from Michigan State University, had recently arrived in Dana Point in hopes of becoming a successful rock musician—a career that "really didn't take off," he says. Unlike Marquis, he immediately suspected 9/11 was an inside job. "The first thing I thought was, 'This was planned,'" he recalls. "This was orchestrated by the Bush administration. . . . It's a farce. . . . Bush came into office with such a low approval rating, and that day it shot up to 90 percent. I knew this was going to help Bush, and we were going to war. I instantly thought it was fake—until the next day."

That's when Ranke heard the cell-phone calls placed by terrified passengers on the planes that hit the Twin Towers. "That was pretty convincing," he allows. "I was instantly convinced and never doubted it for four years until after the 2004 election because I was following it really closely, wanting Bush to lose. I could tell it was rigged, that [Democratic nominee John] Kerry threw the election and that it was rigged for him to lose and Kerry actually won Ohio. That got me into researching voter fraud on the Internet, and that led me into 9/11 online."

When he wasn't busy at his day job or drumming for the Stemz, Ranke's research led him to an online web forum hosted by Marquis' brother. Known as Humans Against New World Order, it dealt mostly with vote-fraud conspiracy theories. Occasionally, the group would get together in person—10 or 15 people at a house in Long Beach, for example—but mostly, members kept in contact via chat rooms. Eventually, Marquis says, the group enjoyed 8,000 regular commenters. "The whole point was to talk and inform people," he says. "But I was of the mindset that we had to do research, we had to have a focal point, something obviously related to 9/11 because that was the biggest thing for most of the people."

For Marquis, that focal point became the Pentagon crash. He began to collect as much information as he could find about the event while discussing his findings with other amateur researchers. He became particularly interested in photographs of airplane debris at the crash site. When another researcher insisted that one photograph supposedly showing part of a Boeing jet-engine casing actually showed debris from an A-3 Skywarrior—a strategic bomber—Marquis spent days surfing the web until he found an actual photograph of that particular Skywarrior part. It didn't look anything like the debris at the crash site.

"The dude was lying!" Ranke says.

Marquis e-mailed the other researcher and showed him what he'd found.

"He would e-mail me back—don't get caught in the minutiae," Marquis says. "Either the guy was an operative or an asset put out there to peddle this disinformation."

By now, Marquis' relentless parsing of Pentagon-crash trivia had brought him to the attention of Pickering, a hardcore conspiracy theorist, and young filmmaker Avery, who was producing the online 9/11 conspiracy film Loose Change, which enjoyed more than a million views on YouTube.

By this time, a French writer named Thierry Meyssan had written a book, Le Pentagate, claiming that a cruise missile caused the explosion at the Pentagon, not a passenger jet. In writing the book, Meyssan distorted quotes from eyewitnesses such as USA Today's Mike Walter to support his theory. Walter had stated in one interview that the plane looked like a "cruise missile with wings"; Meyssan abbreviated the quote so that it appeared Walter had actually stated that he saw a "cruise missile" hit the Pentagon.

"Everybody in the movement embraced the missile theory," Ranke says. "In actuality, it was probably disinformation put out there to reinforce the idea of a large plane coming in and hitting the building."

To find out what really happened, Marquis argued, somebody needed to travel to neighborhoods around the Pentagon and find new eyewitnesses and map the trajectory of the plane they claimed to have seen. "Nobody was brave enough," he says. "You are entering Spook Haven—that's where the CIA is." Marquis told Avery that he and Ranke were going to travel to the D.C. area.

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