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Thu, Apr 21, 2005

The Trail That Lead To Moussaoui

How One Flight Instructor Helped Capture A Terror Suspect

The arrest of Zacarious Moussaoui less than a month before the 9/11 attacks came down to two words: Clancy Prevost. In a stunning article written for The Rake -- an investigative magazine based in Minneapolis, MN -- Dean Stanley reports Prevost, a flight instructor at Pan Am Flight Academy in Eagan, MI, MN, was virtually all that stood between Moussaoui and the cockpit of a jumbo jet.

Prevost said Moussaoui (above, right) showed up at the flight school exactly one month before the attacks, bent on learning how to fly a Boeing 747 and paying for his $6,800 lessons with 68 $100 bills.

"He was pleasant, but I expected him to be better dressed. He just was wearing Dockers and they didn't fit real well, he was a little overweight, and he had this baseball hat, and growth of beard," Prevost told The Rake. Prevost, who's 68 now, said the most remarkable thing about Moussaoui was that there was nothing remarkable about him at all.

Stanley writes that Moussaoui's blandness may have helped him get through the previous five months. After arriving in the US, Moussaoui traveled to Norman, OK, buying knives and flight training videos along the way. He asked around about learning to fly a crop-duster.

Moussaoui spent the spring attending the Airman Flight School in Norman. He was a terrible student, reports Stanley. He failed to solo. An employee at the flight school said Moussaoui just didn't have the Right Stuff.

Prevost told The Rake that very inability to grasp the principles of flight caught his attention right away. He tried to become acquainted with the Frenchman of Moroccan descent. But at some point early on the first day of 747 training, Prevost told Stanley he found himself thinking, "This is awful. We're getting nothing out of this. This is stupid."

But the instructor continued to plug away, hoping to make a connection with his student. Only when he asked Moussaoui if he was a Muslim, reports Stanley, did the student show any emotion.

"I am nothing," he told the American in a stern growl.

"That's when I got the idea," Prevost told The Rake. "'Wait a minute, Middle Eastern businessman? What are we doing here? Muslim? Wait a minute... do we know what we're doing?'"

Over the next 48 hours, Prevost became more and more convinced that something was very wrong with his student. He raised his concerns with Pan Am executives who at first seemed to blow it all off. After all, this was a paying customer -- a cash customer, in fact. The fact that he appeared to have the flight aptitude of a platypus didn't seem to faze them.

"I knew we couldn't teach him to fly," Pan Am executive John Rosengren told Stanley. "Everybody knew that. So all we were doing was going through the motions of instructing this individual and collecting the money from him."

But Prevost told the Rake that he pressed the issue. On Moussaoui's second day of training at the academy -- August 12th, 2001 -- Prevost pushed his supervisor, Alan McHale. Still, Stanley reports, Pan Am manager seemed reluctant to do anything. Then he ran into the company's comptroller, Jerry Liddell, who told him that Moussaoui had paid in cash.

"Hey you guys, how 'bout this? This guy paid for his training with one-hundred-dollar bills," Prevost reportedly told the managers, who were meeting in a conference room. "You know what, if he went to buy an airplane ticket over at the terminal and comes up with hundred-dollar bills, lookin' like he's lookin', they'd have him in the rubber room. They'd have him in jail, and they'd be questioning him. We should call the FBI!"

Still, nothing from the managers. So Prevost did some gumshoe work. That evening, at the Northwest Aerospace Training Corporation's simulator building in Eagan, Prevost met Moussaoui in the parking lot. On the surface, he told Stanley that he was being friendly. In reality, he said, he was scoping out Moussaoui's ride. He noted the car's make and model, the driver who dropped off the flight student and even got a partial on the license plate.

Moussaoui got his 747-400 sim ride that night, quietly blending into the machinery and intently watching all around him. "I didn't even know he was there because he was so quiet and unobtrusive," the instructor said. Moussaoui didn't handle the controls. Instead, he sat in the back of the simulator, observing.

Prevost went back to his hotel that evening with Moussaoui's odd behavior and possible motives heavy on his mind.

Prevost wasn't scheduled to work the next day, so perhaps it was a surprise when he got a call in his hotel room. It was Pan Am. The FBI wanted a word with him.

That afternoon, The Rake reports Prevost met with an FBI agent and an INS representative. He gave a full description of Moussaoui, his behavior, the car he was riding in and the hotel where the Frenchman said he was staying.

Moussaoui was scheduled for LOFT training at NATCO the next day. He never showed up. The sim session was canceled. Moussaoui had been arrested.

Less than a month later, Prevost got a call from his daughter. It was September 11th, 2001.

"Dad, they're crashing airplanes into the Trade Center," she told him.

"I'm thinking, Oh yeah, well, a Cessna got lost in the fog and crashed into the Trade Center," Prevost told the Rake. "And then I turn on the TV and it's no Cessna. You see this airplane banking in, and I said, ‘Shit, that's an Airbus or a five-seven (Boeing 757).' And bam! I saw the second one."

It didn't take him long to figure out the same Moussaoui connection to the 9/11 attacks that prosecutors are now working to prove in court.

"Oh. I get it," he told The Rake. "It explained everything in a split second."

FMI: www.rakemag.com

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