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Tuesday, July 2, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Terrorist Within, Chapter 12: The Crossing

VICTORIA, B.C., Dec. 14, 1999 — By 4 o'clock in mid-December, the sun is descending behind the range that runs like vertebrae down the middle of Vancouver Island. On this chilly afternoon, a Tuesday in the off-season, there were only a few cars waiting to board the M.V. Coho ferry from Victoria, B.C., to Port Angeles, Wash.

A green Chrysler 300M sedan arrived 10 minutes before departure. U.S. Immigration inspector Gary Roberts walked up and asked the driver for his passport and driver's license.

The driver, Benni Antoine Noris, was from Montreal.

"Where are you going?" Roberts asked.

"Sattal," Noris said, adding something about a two-day business trip.

Driving through the island city of Victoria to get to Seattle from mainland Canada was a bizarre choice — understandable for a tourist, maybe, but not for a business trip. Noris would have had to have taken one ferry from the mainland to Vancouver Island, then this one, then a third from the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound to Seattle. It just didn't make sense. Roberts asked Noris to pull over.

Roberts took the license into his office and logged Noris' name into a computer, searching for outstanding warrants or immigration notices. All he found was a note that a similar check had been run on Noris when he landed at the Los Angeles International Airport in February. Still not satisfied, Roberts walked over to the car again.

How are you planning to get back to Montreal? Noris showed a return ferry ticket to Victoria.

But how about to Montreal? Noris raised his hand, mimicking the flight of an airplane.

Something wasn't right. Open the trunk, please, Roberts requested. Noris calmly flipped the latch.

Roberts found a suitcase, a satchel and a backpack. He searched the suitcase, finding only clothes. He closed the trunk and waved the Chrysler onto the ferry.

The Coho arrived in Port Angeles in the dark, just before 6 p.m., the last boat of the day. Customs inspector Diana Dean stopped each car as it rolled off, asking the drivers a few basic questions and wishing them a good trip.

The last car in line was a green Chrysler 300M with British Columbia plates.

"Where are you going?" "Sattal."

"Why are you going to Seattle?" "Visit."

"Where do you live?" "Montreal."

"Who are you going to see in Seattle?" "No, hotel."

The driver was fidgeting, jittery. His hands disappeared from sight as he began rummaging around the car's console. That made Dean nervous.

She handed him a customs declaration to fill out, a subtle way of stalling while she took a closer look. He filled out the form and handed it back. By this time, Dean observed, he was acting "hinky."

She asked him to turn the car off, pop open the trunk and step outside. Noris was slow to respond but complied.

At this point, the other customs inspectors were finished and waiting to go home. They came over to help process the last car of the day. Dean told them this might be a "load vehicle" — code for one used for smuggling. Inspector Mark Johnson took over the interrogation.

"Habla español?" he asked.

"Parlez-vous français?" the man replied, handing over his ID. Not a passport or driver's license, but his Costco card.

"So you like to shop in bulk? You know, the 120-roll pack of toilet paper?" Johnson joked. He escorted Noris to a table, where he asked him to empty his pockets.

Inspector Mike Chapman searched the suitcase in the trunk. As he was doing that, inspector Danny Clem reached in and unscrewed the fastener on the spare-tire compartment. He opened the panel, looked inside and called out to Johnson.

Johnson, grabbing Noris by the shoulders, led him over to the trunk. At a hefty 240 pounds, Johnson had no trouble maneuvering the slim Noris. They peered in and saw no spare tire. In its place were several green bags that appeared to be filled with white powder, as well as four black boxes, two pill bottles and two jars of brown liquid. A drug dealer, perhaps?

Johnson felt Noris shudder. He escorted Noris back to the table and patted him down for weapons. Inside Noris' camel's-hair coat was a bulge. As Johnson was slipping off the coat to take a closer look, he was suddenly left holding an empty garment. Noris was fleeing.

By the time it sank in, Noris was nearly a block away. Johnson and Chapman took off on foot, yelling, "Stop! Police!"

With his head start, Noris escaped. The inspectors couldn't find him. Then Chapman noticed movement under a pickup parked in front of a shoe store. He squatted down, saw Noris, drew his gun and ordered him to come out with his hands up.

Noris stood up, arms raised, and looked at Chapman, just 20 feet away with his gun drawn. Then he turned and ran. "Stop! Police!"

Johnson joined Chapman on Noris' tail. Noris bounced off a moving car but continued running. When he got to the middle of a busy intersection, he reversed direction, headed for a car stopped at the light and grabbed the driver's door handle. The woman behind the wheel, startled, stepped on the gas, ran the red light and sent Noris spinning. Chapman and Johnson swarmed him.

They took him back to the terminal and handed him over to the Port Angeles police, who put him in the back seat of a patrol car.

Johnson took a sample of the white powder from the trunk to test. Was it heroin, speed, cocaine? Negative on each. As he shook the jars of brown liquid, Noris, who could see Johnson from the patrol car, ducked down to the floor.

Within a couple of days, the inspectors would learn that the brown liquid Johnson had shaken was a powerful, highly unstable relative of nitroglycerin that could have blown them all to bits.

TOMORROW: A FBI agent gets his first case.

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