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.
The Citizen Investigation Team claims to have obtained undeniable evidence that what happened at the Pentagon on Sept. 11 was not a terrorist attack by al-Qaida (the official story) or a covert operation by the U.S. military (the widely held conspiracy theory), but in fact—pause for circus music—a magic trick in which a military plane painted to resemble an American Airlines jet flew low over the Pentagon while explosives took down a wall of the structure in a convenient cloud of smoke, thus allowing the plane to fly away and secretly land somewhere, presumably at nearby Reagan National Airport.
Unfortunately, their film, The PentaCon, doesn't provide any evidence of this. What it does show is a series of interviews Ranke and Marquis have filmed over the past few years on location in Arlington, Virginia, usually within a stone's throw of the Pentagon building. They've interviewed Pentagon police officers, journalists, gas-station employees, local residents, a boat captain and several Arlington National Cemetery gravediggers, all of whom believe they witnessed an American Airlines jet crash into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
The fact that all those eyewitnesses and many more believe they saw the jet hit the Pentagon—which happens to be both the official version of what happened that day as well as the accepted truth among most conspiracy theorists—doesn't bother Ranke and Marquis. The "evidence," they say, proves all those witnesses actually saw something else: another jet, flown by an unknown military pilot, soaring just over the roof of the Pentagon, while explosives planted by government operatives at some point before Sept. 11 caused an explosion that allowed the plane to fly away undetected.
"It was a sleight-of-hand operation with a big jet flying over, and then an explosion scaring everybody, and the jet flying away," Marquis claims. "The damaged area to the Pentagon had been under 'renovation' for years and was conveniently scheduled to be completed only days after the event," Ranke adds. "The renovation is why that section of the building was relatively unoccupied compared to any other part of the building and there were relatively few deaths . . . giving them plenty of controlled unoccupied areas to plant debris."
* * *
Many conspiracy theorists—like Avery and Pickering—are no longer on speaking terms with Ranke and Marquis, although they also reject the official story that terrorist hijacker Hani Hanjour flew the plane. Like most in the 9/11 Truth Movement, they believe either the military flew a remotely guided plane into the building or a missile caused the explosion. Still others believe the U.S. government is deliberately trying to lure people into doubting the official version of what happened at the Pentagon—mostly by refusing to release camera footage that would show what really transpired—in order to discredit conspiracy theorists at some point in the future.
"They're wrong, and we're right," Ranke says, pointing at a laptop that he says contains new interviews—and even stronger evidence—proving that no plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. On the laptop is the raw material for their documentary—you can watch it at www.thepentacon.com—and they are about to unveil additional evidence that they promise will blow the lid off the entire conspiracy.
Ranke and Marquis believe that many people they've run across, whether conspiracy theorists such as Pickering or "supposed" eyewitnesses to the Pentagon crash, are actually "deep-cover operatives" or "assets" tasked by the U.S. government to mislead the public and stymie their efforts to reveal the "truth." They say their phones have been tapped and believe that if they weren't able to place all their "research" on the Internet, unspecified government forces would have harmed them by now.
In the process of discovering the "truth" about 9/11, Ranke and Marquis may have alienated many of their former allies in the conspiracy movement, but their relentlessness has won a few converts. "When I first heard of Craig and Aldo's alternate flight path for American Airlines 77, I was very skeptical and tried very hard to prove that their view was in error," says fellow researcher Aidan Monaghan. "However, after carefully viewing all of their witness interviews, I have concluded that the 'official' flight path is arguably in question."
Both members of the Citizen Investigation Team insist their families follow their research and support their efforts. "It has only increased the respect that I get from the people who are closest to me," Ranke says.
Marquis, who divides his research schedule with a full-time job and time with his daughter—never married, he sees her three weekends per month—admits that his Pentagon obsession has caused friction in his life. "Yes, my family supports me, but yes, it has definitely put a strain on my life," he says. "This is something that literally haunts me on a daily basis. Ignorance truly is bliss. But bliss isn't your country killing you or your loved ones in a staged terrorist attack. . . . My daughter is a big reason why I do this. The future and welfare of children in general is a big reason why I do this."
"What you have on your hands," Ranke explains, helpfully, "is the most globally important world-historical exposé you will ever write in your life."
* * *
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."
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.
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."
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."
* * *
Having split with Pickering and Avery, Marquis and Ranke returned to D.C. in November 2007 to interview Turcios and other eyewitnesses. In footage they later included in their online documentary, Turcios clearly points to the north side of the gas station. So does Sergeant Lagasse, who was filling his police car with gas when the attack took place.
"Where did you see the plane?" Ranke asks in a friendly, excited voice.
Lagasse points over his shoulder.
"How sure are you it was on the north side of the gas station?" Ranke asks.
"I tell you right now," Lagasse responds. "You can't say more than 100 percent. Because there is no way it was anywhere other than where I say it was."
"How much of a chance is there that the plane was on the south side of the gas station?" Ranke asks.
"Zero chance," Lagasse says. "Is there less-than-zero percent?"
In the clip, Lagasse also makes repeated references to the fact that he saw the plane hit the Pentagon—and didn't see any plane fly away from the area. When reached at the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA)—the official name of the Pentagon police agency, where he's now a lieutenant—Lagasse groaned when he heard the names Craig Ranke and Aldo Marquis and said he couldn't comment without permission from a press officer.
Chris Layman, a PFPA spokesman, said the agency now prohibits officers from speaking directly to the media, but he sent the Weekly a brief, written statement saying the Pentagon "was hit by American Airlines Flight 77 at 9:37 a.m., killing all 64 passengers and crew and 15 Pentagon employees," that the event was "witnessed by hundreds of people," and while some "have their own theories," the "facts have been verified and are clear."
Marquis and Ranke also interviewed several Arlington National Cemetery employees after receiving permission to bring cameras to the facility. The cemetery is next to the Pentagon. In footage in The PentaCon, several employees state the plane was flying on the north side of the CITGO gas station. More important, all of them—who without exception believe the plane struck the Pentagon—claim the plane started to bank in the sky just before they saw the explosion. To the filmmakers, that banking motion, along with the plane's location north of the CITGO station, proves that the aircraft actually flew over the Pentagon, not into it.
The Researcher's Edition of The PentaConalso includes an interview with Keith Wheelhouse, who was at Arlington National Cemetery on 9/11 to bury his brother-in-law. In the interview, Wheelhouse tells Marquis and Ranke that he saw an American Airlines jet crash into the Pentagon. He also claims to have seen a second plane that seemed to be shadowing the first one. But Marquis and Ranke apparently don't believe Wheelhouse saw the crash because, their film notes, a line of trees partially obscures the view of the building from the location where he claimed to have been standing.
Another witness Marquis and Ranke suspect is part of a deliberate disinformation campaign to trick people into thinking the plane that actually flew over the building at the precise moment someone ignited an explosion was actually a second plane shadowing the phantom American Airlines jet.
USA Todayeditor Joel Sucherman backs the second-plane claim and also appears in The PentaCon. "I'm very confident that what I saw was a jet passenger airplane, silver, the 'AA' on the tail," he says, adding that he also saw a second plane that was "much higher in the sky than the passenger jet was."
Also included in the film is a tape-recorded telephone call with USA Today reporter Vin Narayanan. "Yeah, there was another plane off in the distance," Narayanan says. "It was a jet; it was definitely a jet."
* * *
How witnesses who saw a second plane high in the skies above the Pentagon could possibly be part of a conspiracy to fool the public into thinking that a plane that nobody saw fly over the Pentagon actually crashed into a building is a question that is as ridiculously convoluted and inherently illogical as the very theory embraced by Marquis and Ranke. In fact, other than a few interesting interviews with people who saw a plane fly on one side of a gas station when the official data places it on the other, ThePentaCon includes no evidence of anything whatsoever, just a lot of questions and innuendo set to an ominous hip-hop beat.
Take the bizarre disclaimer at the end of the film: "Citizen Investigation Team is not directly accusing anyone specific [sic] featured in this presentation as being complicit in the crime," it says. "CIT does not call for an investigation into if 9/11 was an inside job. We call for hearings that must lead to indictments uncovering who the masterminds and complicit operatives really are."
Among the "suspicious coincidences" that Ranke and Marquis have "exposed," none is as instructive as the fact that several USA Today employees—Walter, Sucherman and Narayanan, to name a few—rank among the "supposed" eyewitnesses to the Pentagon plane crash. The obvious fact that so many USA Today workers were near the Pentagon that morning because they drive past the building on their way to work every morning is something that apparently doesn't impress the Citizen Investigation Team.
"Among all these very dubious witnesses, there are six to seven USA Today editors and reporters in a quarter-mile stretch of highway at the most crucial point to see the alleged impact, the most controversial event in history," Marquis says, stretched back in his chair, beer in hand. Ranke, eager to voice his own suspicions, nods his head vigorously in agreement while simultaneously scrolling through myriad aerial photographs of the Pentagon on his laptop.
"Imagine six of your co-workers all in the same place, and you're there to sell this event," Marquis continues. "What the fuck? All these people were allegedly in that area on the way to work. Trust me, when you take all their accounts and examine them individually as a researcher, you realize all these motherfuckers are lying."
"We can prove [Walter] is a liar," Ranke says.
"You want me to cut to the chase?" Marquis interrupts. "He's an operative. One hundred percent, without a doubt. A deep-cover operative or asset."
"The point is, it's not obvious until you dig," Ranke says.
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"They are deep cover," Marquis says, shaking his head in resignation. "They have to be. It's obvious."
"Maybe not all of them, but some of them for sure," Ranke offers.
"And if not, they're assets," Marquis adds thoughtfully. "I hate to even speculate."