Avery was busy working on Loose Change: Final Cut, which he hoped would be released in theaters worldwide. He didn't respond to interview requests for this story, but Marquis says Avery invited him and Ranke to combine their efforts. "I told him, no, we already had this planned," Marquis recalls. "He was trying to piggyback, but he said he'd pay for things. We went around filming, and he was mostly in the background while we did interviews. We figured, 'Great, he'll take this to the masses.'"

One of their first stops was Walter's Fairfax, Virginia, home. After noticing Ranke's not-so-subtle effort to secretly tape-record their conversation—and realizing that Ranke and Marquis weren't interested in hearing anything that contradicted their notion that a plane didn't actually hit the building—he refused to submit to an interview.

"They thought they were really going to uncover this thing, and I tried to set them straight," Walter says. "The next day, I told them I wasn't going to talk to them, and later, I found out they were really hammering on me on the Internet."

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

Walter's friend Troy Hanford, who was also at the barbecue, says that Pickering and Avery seemed like "opportunists" who were just trying to make it in Hollywood. "They wanted to be the next Michael Moore team," he said. "The other guys"—Marquis and Ranke—"their objective was to unseat the U.S. government."

Marquis and Ranke's next stop was a CITGO gas station across the street from the Pentagon, which they saw as a crucial place to search for eyewitnesses. The official flight path released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) claimed that the American Airlines jet had passed on the south side of the gas station, where it struck down several light poles before hitting the building. But at least one eyewitness, a Pentagon police sergeant named William Lagasse, had said in an e-mail to a 9/11 researcher that he'd seen the plane on the north side of the gas station.

Where some might find contradictory eyewitness accounts a normal outcome of an intense, traumatic event, Marquis and Ranke view any eyewitness statement placing the plane on the north side of the gas station as clear evidence that the NTSB data is phony and further proof that the military was behind 9/11. They seized on Lagasse's e-mail as a smoking gun. Marquis and Ranke interviewed the manager of the gas station while Avery and Pickering filmed background shots of the Pentagon from a small hill next to the gas station. The manager claimed that one of her employees, Robert Turcios, had also seen the plane on the north side of the station. Marquis and Ranke couldn't believe their ears.

"We just looked at each other," Ranke recalls. "Huge bells went off."

Turcios wasn't at work that day. As Marquis, Ranke, Avery and Pickering prepared to leave, a police car pulled into the gas station. "One cop turns into two, turns into three, turns into a couple of suits," Marquis says. "They spent the next two hours interrogating us."

Police confiscated several rolls of film, citing the fact that the CITGO station was on U.S. Navy property. "They took our tapes but we knew they might, so we had already changed the tapes so they were blank," Ranke says.

After returning to California, Marquis says he started noticing strange clicks on the phone whenever he spoke with Pickering. He also noticed that Pickering didn't seem to share his enthusiasm for returning to Arlington to interview Turcios, the gas-station employee. "Russell got strange about it," Marquis says. "I almost got the feeling he was trying to deter me. . . . I think he was put there to be an operative."

Their relationship quickly soured. E-mails posted on conspiracy chat rooms show that what started as a professional disagreement about how to prove that the U.S. government was behind 9/11 had become a highly personal grudge match. Here's a typical e-mail from Ranke to Pickering:

"You are irrelevant, Pickering. . . . You can keep on sucking official story dick, and we'll keep proving 9/11 was an inside job."

And from Pickering to Ranke: "You are a mentally ill little man, and until you get some help, you always will be. A disgrace to truth . . . Fuck yourself. . . . Fuck you."

Pickering, who now runs an antiques store in Washington, recently told the Weekly he's aware Ranke and Marquis consider him to be a government operative. "They firmly believe that about me," he says, adding that his experience with Marquis and Ranke motivated him to drop out of the conspiracy movement. He still believes that 9/11 was an inside job, but Pickering strongly disagrees with Ranke and Marquis' fly-over theory, which isn't supported by a single eyewitness. "Nobody looked up and saw a plane fly over the Pentagon and fly away. Nobody reported a fly-over."

For his part, Pickering believes the plane crashed into the building. He thinks the American Airlines jet was somehow swapped for a remote-guided plane and—in one instance in which he does agree with Marquis and Ranke—that the crew and passengers were presumably executed. "If you tell people I think it was remotely guided, they'll think I'm as crazy as Aldo and Craig," he says. "But a reasonable look at the evidence is that the plane was not piloted by Hani Hanjour the way the government says it was."

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