Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story
An Otherwise Ordinary Day: In quiet Port Angeles, local folks tackle a terrorist and nothing has been quite the same since
EVER SINCE terrorist Ahmed Ressam drove off the ferry from Victoria, B.C., with 135 pounds of bomb ingredients hidden in his trunk, the folks at U.S. Customs — who caught and chased him on foot through the streets of Port Angeles — have wondered many things.
Was the Los Angeles airport really his only target?
What would've happened if they hadn't caught him?
Most of all, why did he pick Port Angeles? Does that mean (and this gives them the creeps) that he scoped them out before that drizzly night?
Let's say he did. Ressam would have spied an international border crossing that looks, frankly, homemade. Most of the operation takes place outdoors under an awning balanced on creosote pilings, a structure more casually built than your average picnic shelter.
Instead of sitting in booths, the inspectors stand in the salty air next to tables slapped together from scrap lumber, painted gray. To make a phone call or check the computer, they head for a trailer furnished with 1940s office chairs, masonite clipboards, a combo-dial safe and a brass-handled filing cabinet left over from the "Casablanca" era. There are no surveillance cameras. Sparrows and seagulls flit in the rafters. One of the inspectors, since retired, fed the birds on the sly even though they tended to spatter her spit-and-polish colleagues. Despite this ever-present danger, most of the customs officials smile a lot.
Inspector Diana Dean appears to be smiling even when she isn't because her warm brown eyes turn up at the corners, like a Kewpie doll's, and she often winks at the ferry passengers when they show their Murchie's Tea and ask for directions to Highway 101.
Headed to Crescent Lake? She directs them west, past an abandoned shack improbably labeled, CURRENCY EXCHANGE. Seattle? Dean points east in the direction of Omelet King and Dairy Queen.
She waves. "You're good to go!"
Friendly border, no barbed wire. It'd be understandable if an international terrorist mistook this port for easy entry.
ALONG WITH her disarming smile, Diana Dean carries a Glock.
All that day — the day before Ressam, before everything — she'd been out on the firing range with her colleagues, practicing in the rain. Target shooting. Take downs. Handcuffings. Fun when you're in your 20s or 30s, Dean says, but she's well beyond that, and by late afternoon, she was eager to finish, tend to the evening ferry and go home to a hot shower.
What to make for dinner? That was the only thing on her mind. Something quick. Baked potatoes. Hamburger. One of Dean's three grown daughters is vegetarian. Whether to accommodate her that night. Typical Tuesday. December 14th, 1999.
The Millennium was just around the corner, hardly a blip on Dean's radar screen, security or otherwise. Christmas came first. At home, the tree was already up. Downtown, shopkeepers had decorated the streets with little white lights. It wasn't cold enough to frost the breath, but damp.
At 5:30, the ferry from Victoria docked with only 20 vehicles aboard. Dean checked cars in Lane 2, the center lane, while Inspectors Mark Johnson, Mike Chapman, Steve Campbell and Dan Clem worked the other lanes and foot passengers.
"When I'm working a car, I'm always glancing at the next one behind," Dean says. "If it looks like grandma and grandpa from Sequim, it probably is. You're going to ask different questions depending on whether they have U.S. or Canadian plates. You eyeball that person and see if what they look like matches with who they say they are."
All the other passengers were "regular, normal people," Dean recalls. Ressam's rental car is the only one she remembers. Did he pick her line, she wonders now, "maybe, because I'm a woman?"
It was the last vehicle off the boat, a dark green Chrysler 300M with B.C. plates, a luxury sedan usually favored by the older set. The driver was small and wore long sideburns and a too-big camelhair coat. He looked to be in his early 30s. He rolled down the window.
"Where are you going?" Dean asked him.
"Sattal," he said. Nervous, she thought. Out-of-the-ordinary nervous.
"Why are you going to Seattle?"
"Bisit," he said. Fidgeting.
"Where do you live?"
"Montreal." Oh. French-Canadian. That explains the accent. But not his jumpiness.
"Who are you going to see in Seattle?"
"No, hotel." Why such a roundabout route from Montreal, on two ferries, to visit a hotel in Seattle? Doesn't make sense, Dean thought. The man became more agitated, began rummaging in the console.
"The minute the hands disappear," Dean says, "you get nervous."
Secondary inspection. She gave him a customs declaration to get his hands busy and asked for his driver's license. It identified him as Benni Noris of Montreal.
Not quite. Though he later claimed "I am a not a citizen of anywhere," Ahmed Ressam is Algerian, born there in 1967. He worked a while in his father's coffee shop before moving to France under a false name, then to Montreal, where he lived on welfare and petty thievery and joined a terrorist cell. In 1998, he learned to rig bombs, conduct urban warfare and do surveillance at a jihad training camp in Afghanistan. In 1999, he returned to Vancouver, B.C., with the key chemicals for making the bomb for Los Angeles and spent several days putting it together with accomplice Abdelmajid Dahoumane in Room 118 of the 2400 Inn. The men kept the window open despite the wet, rainy weather, housekeeping staff testified, and left an acid burn on a table and corroded plumbing.
Ressam then drove to Victoria, where he called ahead to reserve a room at the Best Western hotel near Seattle Center, jotting the number on a notepad from the Empress Hotel. The slip of paper was found in his car along with a Los Angeles map — airports circled — but it would take months for the rest to unfold.
Dean watched the jittery man. Turn off the car, pop open the trunk and step out, she ordered. He didn't comply. By that time, the other inspectors had processed their passengers and were waiting for her to finish. Johnson had served a brief stint in Montreal, so Dean asked him to talk to the French Canadian.
Johnson didn't speak French, but knew Spanish from years working the southern border. "Habla Español?"
"Parlez-vous Français?" the man replied. He handed over his Costco card as identification.
"So you like to shop in bulk?" Johnson joked. "Y'know the 120-roll pack of toilet paper?" He was trying to crack the mask, test whether the guy was feigning no-speak-English. The guy gave him a withering look but wouldn't respond. He was acting "hinky," Johnson says, suspicious.
Johnson escorted him, by the arm, to a gray table to search the pockets of his trench coat. A few steps away, inspectors Clem and Chapman removed a suitcase from the trunk and unscrewed the covering over the spare tire. Clem called out. They'd found something.
Johnson gripped Ressam by both shoulders and walked him to the trunk. They peered inside.
In Johnson's hands, Ressam shuddered.
"I CAN'T TELL YOU I've led a very exciting life," Diana Dean says. "Absolutely not one thing extraordinary. Nothing. Totally boring."
When pressed, Dean talks about her animals. She has two llamas, a Dalmatian, another dog, a tiny freshwater puffer fish, two cats, five unnamed chickens, a yellow-naped chartreuse Amazon parrot and two African leopard tortoises, Lily and Luke, whose parents were recently featured in Reptile Magazine. That's the closest Dean admits to fame.
Dean has loved animals since she was a girl growing up in Seattle. Her mom, a Seattle schoolteacher, let her keep baby raccoons, rabbits, cats, dogs, hamsters, even a snake or two. Her father was killed in the Battle of the Bulge shortly before she was born, so she spent a lot of time with her grandparents on their North Dakota farm.
She dreamed of being a veterinarian or marrying a farmer. Instead, she wed a city boy, Tony, whom she'd met at Roosevelt High. He became a sky marshal and then worked in customs. She took courses at Everett and Spokane community colleges, worked as a payroll manager in Seattle, moved to Hawaii when Tony was transferred, then applied to be an inspector herself.
Dean loved the job, especially the airport buzzing with people. She glommed onto inspectors she admired to learn what they looked for and how they asked questions. Over the years, she made several big busts along with run-of-the-mill seizures, even after transferring to Port Angeles, a much quieter port. Dean's boss says she has a "sixth sense," but Dean attributes it to experience and training.
"Being an inspector," she says, "you see the same types day in and day out. I can almost tell who they are, where they're going, and practically what they do for a living. And if they seem a little off, I pull them over for a second look-see."
That's all she was doing the night of Dec. 14, 1999, when Ressam came through. "Who would have dreamed it? Never in a trillion years," she says. "You have your life pretty much planned out, and something will happen to change it. You go with what life hands you, I guess I don't know."
Since snagging Ressam, Dean and her colleagues have been honored by the director of U.S. Customs and awarded medals by the U.S. Treasury secretary. They've testified at trials in Los Angeles and New York and in front of Congress in Washington, D.C. A self-described "homebody," Dean had never visited any of these places before. "I'd never heard of Algeria or Afghanistan," she says. "That's not true, but it is. Before, you didn't think of things that go on in other parts of the world."
Now she does. She's watched documentaries about Ressam's homeland. She's gone on the Internet with her daughter to read about women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. What if a woman's husband is killed, she wonders. How would she make a living, take care of her children?
"Unimaginable," Dean says. "Chaotic. That's the only word. Certainly not like it is here. It's not even like New York, for crying out loud!"
In Port Angeles, daily life goes on. "I get up every morning, get my kids to school, come home, make dinner, shop at Safeway. This being Port Angeles, that's one of the highlights." But somehow, especially since Sept. 11, it's not the same.
"You think about these things in the weirdest places," she says. The other night in the Safeway, by the meat counter, something washed over Dean. "You look around and people are shopping in their own little world," she says. "I can't believe everyone isn't down on their knees because we have so much, and so many people don't. We complain about the stupidest thing in this country. Go figure."
The meat counter in the Port Angeles Safeway is 52 steps long. It ends where a Hostess Twinkie display intersects with the pet-food aisle. Pet Food stretches the entire length of the store and includes treats such as Purina Bacon Beggin' Strips, $3.49 for six ounces.
To Diana Dean, this used to be normal.
Now it's not.
DEEP INSIDE Ressam's trunk, the wheel well was loaded. Ten green plastic garbage bags filled with white crystals, two olive jars of amber liquid, black boxes, two pill bottles.
Drugs, Johnson thought, flashing back to the southern border. Maybe meth. Not powdery like cocaine, coarser, somewhere between sugar and rock salt.
Johnson patted Ressam down for weapons, felt a hard bulge in his right pocket. Suddenly, Ressam slipped out of his trench coat and ran. "Instead of running after him," Johnson recalls, "I'm like: Hey! Hey! You can't do that!
"If anything be known, I'm the guy who let Ressam go."
Not for long. He and Chapman took off on foot. Dean and Inspector Steve Campbell jumped in their family vans. "Watch the trunk!" Dean called to her husband, who was waiting for a ride home because his car had broken down.
It was dark. Ressam led by half a block. Which way? Campbell yelled to an old man on the corner. The guy pointed with his cane: That-a-way!
At the trial, the prosecution used an aerial map of downtown Port Angeles to trace the four-block chase. Ressam ran up Laurel, past the banks and flower planters toward First Street's twinkling holiday lights. Chapman followed. Johnson cut through a parking lot by a mural of the ferry Kalakala. At the corner of First Street, Ressam bumped into a guy, kept running and dove under a pickup truck parked in front of the shoe store.
Chapman finally caught up and squatted on the curb, gun drawn: Stop! Police! Customs!
Ressam crawled out, glanced at Chapman, turned his back and ran into the traffic. He rebounded off a moving car and tried to duck into the Kalakala parking lot, but found himself facing Johnson. It'd been all uphill. Everyone was panting, but the race plodded on, past the movie theater and the furniture store and Dynasty Chinese restaurant.
"It was kinda weird because it was like a slow-motion chase," recalls a local shopowner, who watched it. "They were going around in circles. He (Ressam) kept looking back. He looked bored, really, so we just thought he's just some shoplifter. The last thing in the world you'd think was it was a terrorist."
Traffic was confused. At the intersection of First and Lincoln, Ressam grabbed the door handle of a blue Olds stopped at the light. The manager of Safeway video rentals was at the wheel. She hadn't locked her car door, of course, this being Port Angeles. She wondered whether to run the red light. Go! her husband said. She floored it.
Ressam spun, off balance. Chapman tackled him. Johnson pounced, 240 pounds kneeling on Ressam's shoulders, and slapped on Smith & Wesson cuffs.
AFTER THE awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., Johnson hung his medal in the back of his locker and never wanted to look at it again. He was ashamed how he'd snapped at people in the days following Ressam's capture. He'd stayed awake nearly 72 hours babysitting the explosive cache, and when he finally went home, he thought he saw a man dressed in black crawling toward the house. "I recognized I was going nuts," the inspector said. He took time off to sleep and work out.
Also, like the other inspectors, Johnson didn't feel deserving of special merit. It had taken several years to find his calling as a customs inspector after graduating from Fife High School and Western Washington University and working various construction and warehouse jobs.
His first year as a customs inspector along the southern border near Tijuana, other inspectors zeroed in on dope all the time, but he couldn't find a thing. "The southern border was like getting slapped with a wet towel," he says, until "I learned to read the thing and hone it down to an edge." In 1996, Johnson was awarded a belt buckle for making the most seizures in San Ysidro and Tecate ports. He'd push the traffic, moving a line quickly to weed out civilian chaff and suck in smugglers. Long hours, tough conditions, hard work. The other inspectors on the southern border, he says, deserve medals, too.
USA v. Ressam (CR99-666c) was held in Los Angeles in a stylish new courthouse, part Perry Mason, part Restoration Hardware. Johnson was nervous while testifying, but that didn't keep him from trying to connect with the slight man in the brown sweater.
The prosecution: "Now during this field-testing process, did you test the contents of the pill bottles?"
Johnson: "I did not."
Q: "What, if anything, did you do with the pill bottles?"
A: "I just looked at them and shook them around."
Q: "Did you know the pill bottles contained a high explosive?"
A: "I know that now."
A Tylenol bottle contained a powerful military-grade explosive, cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, or RDX. Another small bottle held hexamethylentriperoxodiamin, or HMTD, an unstable explosive so dangerous it's not manufactured commercially. Two tall olive jars were filled with 50 ounces of ethylene glycol dinitrate, or EGDN, a chemical cousin to nitroglycerin. Used in dynamite, EGDN is sensitive to shock, heat and friction. Screwing the jar lids could have been enough to set it off. The garbage bags contained 118 pounds of urea fertilizer and 14 pounds of sulfate powder. Mixed with other chemicals, it's a bomb. When the FBI detonated five pounds of the mixture under a big old sedan, the explosion left only shards of car carcass and drifting ash.
Q: "What, if anything, did you do with the Safeway olive-jar containers that had the brown liquid?"
A: "I tipped them upside-down for the viscosity of it."
Q: "Did you know at the time it contained the equivalent of nitroglycerin? Do you know if you dropped the bottle what would have happened?"
A: "I know."
At that, Johnson made eye contact with Ressam, who returned his gaze and then looked down. Did he feel remorse? Johnson couldn't tell. "My Christian belief says everyone can be redeemed."
Every night before bed, Johnson and his three boys pray for Mommy and baby sister; for Manolin and Yurebe, boys they sponsor in the Dominican Republic; for neighbors; for help in saying no to sin and yes to God. They also pray Ressam will repent and become a Christian, "not in the sappy sense," Johnson says, "but in recognition of 'Hey, I'm a sinner.' " He adds, "Even though I'm praying for the guy, I want to get in that cell and throttle him."
On Sept. 11, Johnson worked out his sadness and anger by running the ramps behind the Federal Building. Changing clothes at his locker, Johnson spied his medal, still dangling from its blue ribbon. He thought about what could have been, and for the first time, he felt proud.
"Yeah," he said. "That's OK."
HANDCUFFED, RESSAM lay on cold pavement while traffic detoured around him. His left cheekbone was scraped; he curled his legs like a dead spider, not resisting, but not cooperating. "So I applied pain compliance to his wrist," Johnson said, "and that's when he decided he was going to walk back." A patrol car arrived to drive them the last few blocks.
In the trailer, the inspectors pulled out field kits to test the white granules in the garbage bags. They still thought it was dope, but all the drug tests were negative. Then, they remembered the four black boxes in the trunk and unscrewed one of the lids. A Casio watch face stared back, laced to a circuit board with red wires.
Calls had gone out. Layers of law enforcement arrived and swarmed around the little ferry terminal. In the backseat of the patrol car, still handcuffed, Ressam kept peeking over the edge of the window, then ducking down as officials poked at the bomb materials in his trunk. Dean wondered if he'd been badly hurt in the scuffle. Should they call medics? They loosened his handcuffs.
At the trial, Ressam's defense attorney cross-examined Inspector Chapman: "You didn't run up to the people at the trunk of the car and say, 'Get away from the trunk of the car. There is something wrong here because this guy is diving down on the seat?' "
A: "No. I'm not trained in testing for either narcotics or any other material. We had individuals that are trained, and I was relying upon their field of expertise."
Everyone cringes when they look back. That night, they'd stored the heat- and shock-sensitive EGDN in the warm basement of the Federal Building, a classic brick and stone edifice heated by steam radiators. Johnson recalls the olive jars knocking against each other as he walked them downstairs. Three days later, an ATF agent drove 900 miles on I-5 with the chemicals before learning how volatile they were. This summer, when testifying against co-conspirator Mokhtar Haouari, Ressam said he was too scared to drive with the chemicals in his car; he'd planned to take Amtrak to Los Angeles instead.
"We didn't realize the magnitude of it that night," Dean says. What started as an ordinary drizzly day had turned into a nervous ferry passenger, then a suspicious car, then a bomb plot, then a Montreal terrorist cell, then a jihad training camp in Afghanistan linked to Osama bin Laden.
Customs inspectors are not experts in such matters. They are good at reading eyes.
"You know how you look in somebody's eyes and there's light? He looked at me and his eyes were dead," Dean says of Ressam. "It was just a chilling chilling chilling feeling. It was like looking at a person who was not there. There was no spark, no life, no soul. His eyes were just flat."
PORT ANGELES Port Director Jerry Slaminski is a beefy man with a moustache who resembles Captain Kangaroo's bigger, less jolly, younger brother.
One wall of his office serves as a glory board. In framed montages, beaming inspectors show off sacks of confiscated marijuana and bricks of cocaine.
The Ressam capture is in the center and features snapshots of the terrorist taken that night in the trailer. He stands next to a fire extinguisher and K9 recruiting poster, pockets turned inside out, undershirt peeking from his gray sweater. There's slight stubble on his hollow cheeks and he's set his face in an expressionless mask. Maybe if he were smiling you could imagine the guy, in an alternate universe, laughing with friends at a soccer match or café. Maybe not.
Next to the glory board, there's a framed photo of President George W. Bush. It's on top of a VCR on which Slaminski shows documentaries to teach his staff about other cultures. Slaminski, who's traveled extensively around the world and was a sky marshal in the Middle East, has a daughter who married a Muslim and moved there. When he imagines Ressam's roots in Algeria, he says:
"What would your identity be, as a man, if you had no job, people are getting killed and you're not sure who's right, the government is corrupt, the rich are getting richer and the poor people are taken advantage of and you'll never amount to anything, anyway, you're never going to get out of the hole, or have a family, or job. They're probably looking for a cause. Trying to find some purpose in life."
Across the room, under a navigational chart of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is another framed photo: Osama bin Laden. He sits cross-legged in a flowing white garment and camouflage jacket. Slaminski sinks into his chair, dark uniform belted and decorated with badges. The leader of the Armed Islamic Group and the head of Port Angeles Customs stare at each other.
Slaminski put bin Laden's picture up on Sept. 12, "thinking I was going to pray for him, but I haven't," he says, tapping a pen on his desk. "I pray that he's going to get caught. I think that would be even better than seeing him killed. Yeah, brought back here in handcuffs and put in a courtroom. It reminds me to pray that justice is done. Also to pray for the people in New York.
"It's intense. Every time I look at it, you feel like you're at war and this is my Public Enemy No. 1, and you don't want to grow lethargic until we control this situation. Maybe someday I can write DECEASED or CAPTURED or DEATH ROW on that picture with this black pen.
"The Bible says pray for your enemies. I find it hard. I want to pray that his soul will be saved, but I can't." The port director pauses, swallows. "Excuse me," he says. His ample jaw trembles. He takes a deep breath. "God's grace is bigger than my grace. To be honest, I believe God allowed that man to be caught as a warning to the U.S. that we were a target and they were trying to penetrate our borders and do damage. Whether it was taken seriously or not, you be the judge."
It is an odd feeling to be on a misty peninsula, in a government office, listening to the director of a tiny port talk about God, jihad and Algerian grandmothers wailing in olive groves. But these are strange times.
"You think of a small town like this as a quiet haven of peace where you can escape this kind of thing," Slaminski says. "There's no place in the world to run from this anymore. No country's too small, no city's too small."
Every month in Port Angeles, customs inspectors seize Cuban cigars and a few bottles of Tylenol with codeine. Every other month, they confiscate a joint or two. Once a year, they'll uncover a notable load, like last year's 120 pounds of marijuana in a motorhome. Mostly, the port deals with the surplus of bountiful nations: tourists and commercial truckers.
The tidy office is stocked with rubber stamps, staplers, a fax machine, Scotch tape, manila folders, pencil jars, paperclips, envelopes. The implements of civil society. Office supplies never looked so vulnerable.
In three weeks, it will be two years since Ressam took the ferry to Port Angeles.
Every day, 249,000 people cross the northern border between Canada and the United States. In December, more than 5 million passengers typically travel through the Los Angeles International Airport. In the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, Ahmed Ressam is cooperating with the FBI in hopes of getting less than 130 years at his Feb. 14 sentencing. In Afghanistan, the United States is dropping 7½-ton bombs as big as Volkswagen Beetles. Osama bin Laden remains at large.
On the Port Angeles waterfront, wind whips the flags. Every evening, when the ferry docks, Diana Dean smooths on an extra layer of Chapstick and goes out to meet the boat. She winks and waves at everyone, almost.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.