COSTA Rican family members are mourning the death of Rigoberto Alpízar, who was shot at the Miami International Airport in the U.S. state of Florida Wednesday afternoon after allegedly threatening to have a bomb aboard an American Airlines plane.
U.S. air marshals shot and killed Alpízar, 44, near the plane door as he exited the aircraft clutching a backpack and repeating that he had to get off, witnesses told the press. Alpízar was born in Costa Rica but had lived in the United States for nearly two decades.
“When I received the news, I lost my breath. I felt like I was going to die,” Alpízar’s father, Carlos Alpízar, told The Tico Times.
Shortly before the plane’s scheduled takeoff, Rigoberto Alpízar ran up the aisle from his seat in the rear of the aircraft and claimed he had a bomb in his bag, according to Federal Air Marshal Service spokesman Dave Adams. Two air marshals confronted Alpízar, who continued to be “belligerent,” moving towards the officials and refusing to get down as ordered, Adams told The Tico Times. When Alpízar reached into his bag the two officers opened fire, killing him.
DESPITE the threat, subsequent inspection found no explosives in Alpízar’s luggage. Witnesses told various media that his wife, also on board, chased him as he tried to exit, shouting that he was bipolar and had not taken his medication.
The victim was in Miami en route from Ecuador to Orlando, Florida, where he lived with his wife, a U.S. citizen named Anne Buechner, the Associated Press wire service reported. The couple had just transferred to American Airlines Flight 924, which originated in Colombia, for the final leg of their journey.
The couple had been in Peru and Ecuador on a volunteer medical mission where they were translating for Buechner’s godfather, a dentist. A witness on their flight from Ecuador told the U.S. news channel CNN that Alpízar’s behavior was erratic and flight attendants had problems communicating with him.
Bipolarity is a personality disorder characterized by wild swings between depression to euphoria, and requires regular treatment with prescription drugs, most commonly lithium.
ACCORDING to Dr. Verónica Castro, a clinical psychologist at the Hospital Clínica Bíblica in San José, Alpízar’s behavior could have been a manic episode of bipolar disorder.
“Abruptly stopping medication can have very negative consequences,” she said.
Castro said that in the euphoric, manic phase of the disorder, patients can lose contact with reality and act out high-risk behaviors that put their own life and others’ at risk. In both the manic and depressive states, patients are also at high risk for suicide.
Alpízar’s father, however, said that he was not aware of any mental problems affecting his son.
“I think they killed him and are now inventing anything to wash their hands of it,” the 72-year-old man said.
Alpízar was born in the small town of Cobal de Nicoya, in the northwest Costa Rican province of Guanacaste, and is the second of three brothers and one sister. He met his wife when she was teaching English at the University of Costa Rica; they moved to the United States shortly thereafter, and he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
HIS father said Alpízar never had conflicts with others.
“Not just because he is my son,” he said. “Ask anybody around here. He was such a good person, you have no idea.
They should have grabbed him and detained him and investigated it. Not grab him and kill him, like an animal.”
Air marshals are U.S. federal law enforcement officers who ride select flights in undercover clothing, carrying automatic .357-caliber SIG Sauer pistols.
The officers are specially trained to handle situations within aircraft, such as maneuvering between aisles or seats. The incident is the first in which air marshals have ever opened fire on duty since the attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
After Sept. 11, the number of air marshals in service was greatly increased from 33 to a number now classified by the U.S. government, CNN reported.
REGARDING the shooting, Adams said, “The federal air marshals responded based on their training. It was textbook.
“It is a terrible loss,” he added. “I know it’s a loss to the family and it’s a loss for the Federal Air Marshal Service. It has an effect on the service and the agents involved.”
The two air marshals involved in the incident have been put on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, according to AP.
In Costa Rica, the Foreign Ministry released a statement expressing “deep sadness” for family members and said its personnel will be available to the family. The ministry also sent a letter to the U.S. Ambassador in Costa Rica, Mark Langdale, soliciting an official account of the incident and the investigation.
President Abel Pacheco also expressed his solidarity with the victim’s family in the “deeply painful” incident, the statement said.