Deerfield Beach no stranger to terrorists. 9/11 hijackers lived and plotted there

With potential acid attacking, child harming domestic terrorist Alexandra Mayers living in Deerfield Beach, the area needs to be on alert. They weren’t in the early 2000’s when the 9/11 hijackers stayed, lived and planned their evil acts in their area.

DELRAY BEACH — On a July night 15 years ago, in Delray Beach, a police officer stopped a motorist for speeding. He let the man go with a warning.

“Take a minute and consider how your careless driving affects the people you share these streets with and try to help make our streets a safer place to be,” the written warning read.

Nine weeks later, Mohamed Atta flew an airplane into a building.

In the summer leading up to the deadly terrorist attacks, 12 of the 19 hijackers who commandeered and crashed four jetliners on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people, lived in or had connections to Palm Beach County. Nearly the entire crew of the two jets that brought down the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center were here.

They shopped at Target and Winn-Dixie, banked at SunTrust and Bank of America, and visited Lion Country Safari, The Palm Beach Post has found in documents declassified by the FBI.

But at the same time they roamed amid our daily lives, they prepared to unleash the deadliest attack on U.S. soil in history, an attack so profoundly personal to every American that it need be identified by only two numbers: 9 and 11.

The terrorists who came to South Florida — including Atta, the leader of the operation — hardly kept low profiles in the weeks before the attack. They visited strip clubs, argued with bar managers and intimidated hotel maids. Two used the Internet at the Delray Beach library. Atta quizzed an Atlantic Avenue pharmacist about how to relieve irritated hands and bought a utility knife in Boynton Beach.

But 15 years later, the federal government wouldn’t tell us much, until recently.

With the Brooklyn bridge in the foreground, a plane explodes after hitting the second tower of the World Trade Center as the other tower burns, in New York September 11, 2001. REUTERS/Sara K. Schwittek

The report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry, which listed many of the references that would be mentioned a year later by the 9/11 Commission, makes one Palm Beach County reference: in early 2001, “a crop duster operator in Belle Glade identified Atta as inquiring about the purchase and operation of crop dusters while Atta was living in the Atlanta area.”

The 9/11 Commission’s 567-page report, issued in July 2004, reflected examination of 2.5 million pages of documents and interviews with more than 1,200 people. It makes no specific reference to the hijackers’ presence in Palm Beach County, except in an endnote that said hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi “found the group an apartment in Delray Beach, Florida.”

And in 2006, the court in the trial of conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui released hundreds of documents, some of which detailed the hijackers’ Palm Beach County movements. But most of the information either was mundane or had been made public within days after the attacks, or both.

And there are the 28 pages. The one former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., has been trying to get declassified all these years. They finally were released this July. As Graham has suggested, they were about possible connections to Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally. But they weren’t much more than summaries of leads. About the South Florida doings of the hijackers, the pages gave few details; again most were minor or already known.

Now there are complete chronologies (although redacted) of their movements and profiles on the FBI Vault website.

Here’s what we know about those movements, from official government files and The Palm Beach Post’s own reporting:

Local haunts

Brothers Waleed and Wail al-shehri rented a room at the Homing Inn in Boynton Beach. Satam Al-Suqami listed the address on his Florida driver license. The pilot who hit the South Tower, Al-Shehhi, rents a one-bedroom apartment at the Hamlet Country Club in Delray Beach from June 20 to Aug. 12. Al-Shehhi paid $1,800 for two months, plus a $900 security deposit.

Hazma al-Ghamdi leased a two-bedroom apartment at the Delray Racquet Club. Other hijackers were linked to the address at 755 Dotterell Road. Residents said that two of them were reclusive and always carried gym bags or duffel bags. At times, as many as seven Middle Easterners were there, neighbors said. Before they got settled in Delray, several stayed at the Lisa 1 & 2 Motel/Apartments and at the Lago Mar motel, both just north and south of downtown Lake Worth on Federal Highway.

For their various lodgings, the men paid thousands of dollars rent, mostly in cash up front.

Waleed Shehri checked into the Homing Inn in June and paid his $260 a week rent and deposits with a Visa card, records show. Shehri had at least two associates who slept in Room B-308. The men gave the impression they spoke little or no English, housekeeper Valrie Williams of Lake Worth said in September 2001. She said one always would stay at the room, sitting in a chair partly in the walkway and partly in the threshold of the open front door.

“I would talk to them,” Williams said. “They made like they didn’t want to talk.”

About Town

Gregg Chartterton, 56, at work at The Right Pill Pharmacy in Boca Raton in 2011. In 2001 Chartterton working at another location had a close encounter with 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. Chatterton had the encounter with Atta, when the terrorist stop by his drug store to buy medications for burns on his hands.Bill Ingram/Palm Beach Post

Atta came to Huber Drugs, on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Delray Beach, in the summer of 2001, seeking an ointment for his mysteriously red hands.

“It was obvious that he dipped both his hands in bleach or something,” pharmacist Gregg Chatterton said. He said he quizzed Atta, who was evasive. Chatteron recommended a product named Acid Mantle.

In July 2001, Atta and Al-Shehhi bought a one-month membership at Jim Woolard’s World Gym in Delray Beach. Hijackers also got one-month contracts at the Body Dynamics gym in Lantana and used the Y2 Fitness Center in Boca Raton.

Atta and Al-Shehhi were late-night regulars at a Denny’s on Federal Highway near the Homing Inn in Boynton Beach. Waitresses recalled serving two Middle Eastern men who complained about their bills and left meager tips. One was Atta. He also was also seen at an Olive Garden restaurant in Greenacres.

Hamza Al-Ghamdi and Mohand Al-Shehri rented a box at the Mailboxes Etc. off Federal Highway in Delray Beach. Al-Ghamdi listed the box number as his address on his driver license. Another box was rented at the Mailboxes Etc. Military Trail location and others used that address on their Florida driver licenses or ID cards.

Brothers Waleed and Wail al-Shehri and al-Shehhi used the Internet at the Delray Beach Library. The FBI later confiscated two computer terminals.

The men shopped at Target, Office Depot, Office Max, Lowe’s, Circuit City, Burdines, Sears, Rack Room Shoes and Payless Shoes stores. On Aug, 1, Atta, at the Lowe’s in Boynton Beach, paid $74.18 for a Leatherman utility knife.

Flying lessons, crop dusters, traffic ticket

Mohammed Atta visited Belle Glade at least twice to ask crop-dusting workers about their operations. Less than a month before the attacks, Atta rented a four-seat Piper Archer single-engine plane for 90-minute flights from Palm Beach Flight Training in Lantana. He rented a plane four times. Atta And al-Shehhi had taken flight training the previous year in Venice, near Sarasota on Florida’s west coast. The men said they were tourists and did computer work in Coral Springs, according to one resident. But a condominium officer who interviewed new tenants said al-Shehhi told him he didn’t have a job.

When the Delray Beach police officer stopped Atta for speeding July 5, 2001, he gave Atta only a warning, even though a warrant had been issued for Atta a month earlier for not appearing in a Broward County court on a charge of driving without a license. Florida driver license applications were submitted for nine of the hijackers; seven were identified as “safe drivers.”

On July 26, at Tippett Travel in Boynton Beach, Atta bought round-trip tickets from Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport to Newark, N.J. Hamza al-Ghamdi and Fayez Banihammad — who both had Delray Beach addresses — called from somewhere in South Florida on Aug. 25 and Aug. 27, respectively, to buy two tickets each on United Flight 175, which hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. And on Sept. 7, just four days before the attacks, at Costamar Travel in Boca Raton, Atta bought a ticket from Fort Lauderdale to Baltimore. His next flight was the one he would pilot into the North Tower.

Broward County: “I’m a pilot.”

At Shuckums Bar in Hollywood the night of Sept. 11, agents showed a manager pictures of the men. He and two bartenders said later that they identified Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi. Manager Tony Amos said the two and another man “got wasted” in his place. Atta, who wore wire-rim glasses, sat on a front corner stool and talked with a third man while his companion furiously pumped dollar bills into a video poker game at the far end of the bar. Atta argued with the manager over his $48 drink bill. When the manager asked whether he could pay, Atta got offended and said, “I’m a pilot for American Airlines and I can pay my bill.”

FBI agents also swept through the North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines, next to Hollywood, that first night. They got the owner of the private Broward Aviation operation out of bed to get them the tail numbers of planes at his maintenance and flight school. And they asked him not to tell anyone what they were after. The owner of a Deerfield Beach motel said he found aeronautical maps, books on how to fly 757 and 767 airplanes, food with Arabic labels and other items in the trash bin outside an apartment he had rented to two men who appeared Middle Eastern. And the FBI spent at least an hour at a three-story condominium apartment complex in Coral Springs that Atta listed as his last address.

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