Terror Threat Closes FL Highway; Bomb Experts Called

Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:20pm EDT
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(2nd Add: Includes comments from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.)

(CNSNews.com) - A terror alert closed a 20-mile stretch of I-75 (Alligator Alley) at the edge of the Florida Everglades Friday morning. Police stopped two cars after a Georgia restaurant customer said she overheard three men - apparently Middle Eastern - make what she interpreted as a threat to blow up something, possibly in Miami.

Police said specially trained dogs indicated they sniffed explosives in the cars, prompting a thorough search of the vehicles that was still going on at mid-morning.

Live aerial television footage showed the two cars stopped on the highway, with bomb experts occasionally approaching the vehicles and a suitcase lying on the ground. The explosives experts appeared to be unrolling detonation cord, and at one point, they blew up what appeared to be a small satchel.

However, at a 9:30 a.m. press conference, law enforcement authorities said they had not found any explosives so far.

"We have identified the three suspects. As far as we know, they are all three legal," said a Florida investigator identified as E.J. Picolo. He refused to release any information about the detainees' nationalities.

Fox News reported that as a result of the traffic stop, the FBI Friday morning raided a home in Hanover Park, Ill. No other details were known about that raid. Fox also reported that one of the cars stopped early Friday morning in Florida had a license tag that didn't go with that vehicle.

What the lady heard

Fox News reported that a waitress at a Shoney's in Calhoun, Ga., overhead three Middle Eastern men talking about a major attack in Florida that would happen on Sept. 13.

Later, Fox News interviewed that woman, Eunice Stone, who described herself as a Shoney's customer, not a waitress. She said she was sitting at a table next to the three men, and she said she heard the men laughing about Sept. 11.

This was on Thursday, she said, not Wednesday as originally reported.

Stone said the men were talking about "having enough to bring it down." She didn't hear what "it" was, but she said she was very concerned.

Eunice quoted one of the men as saying, "Well, if they're mourning 9/11, what are they going to do about 9/13?" A second man said, "Do you think we have enough to bring it down?" One of the men responded, "If we don't have enough to bring it down, I have contacts - we'll get enough to bring it down." She said they mentioned Miami.

"I'm not an eavesdropper, but when you hear something like that, you tend to listen, and when they started to talking about 'bringing it down' and they were going to Miami -- I thought something was fishy," she said.

Stone said she watched the men get into cars with Illinois tags, and she wrote down the tag numbers and car descriptions with a crayon she grabbed from a "kiddie basket" near the cashier's counter.

Police put out a "bolo" (be on the lookout) alert for the two cars, and Collier County sheriff's deputies stopped them around 1 a.m. Friday after one car blew through an I-75 toll plaza without paying.

The suspects, whom authorities refused to identify, are now being questioned, and authorities said no charges are forthcoming until a thorough search of the cars is completed.

Alligator Alley is the major route between Naples and Fort Lauderdale.

The cars were heading east, and law enforcement authorities throughout Florida are on high alert, as they track down where the men were heading -- and where they may have been.

The customer who overheard the men said they were young - in their twenties - spoke good English and were dressed as any other American men might be. One had a full beard and wore what she described as an Islamic head-covering - not a yarmulke, she said.

At 9:40 a.m. EDT, police said I-75 probably would stay closed for another few hours.

'This New System Works'

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at an afternoon press conference said the three men are not suspects "they're being detained as the investigation continues."

Gov. Bush also praised law enforcement for their quick response and said the people of Florida should take "great comfort that we have the best communication possible, that we take these threats seriously and people's fears should not overwhelm them."

"We have incredibly trained law enforcement officers at every level of government that are working together to protect Floridians and protect Americans," he said, adding, "this is an example of how this new system works."

"If we did not have this regional security task force structure in place and the counter-terrorism center that provides the information based on good solid intelligence, we might not have been able to identify these cars," Gov. Bush said.

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