Local News
7:19 am
Thu May 16, 2013

Internal Documents Show CMPD's Tisdale Report Sparked Airport Rift

Delvonte Tisdale

  At first blush, there’s a lot about the power struggle over Charlotte’s airport that makes no sense. After all, both sides in the debate agree the airport has done extraordinarily well under the city’s control. So what’s happened?

A mysterious death, for one.

And WFAE has reviewed internal airport documents that cast doubt over much of what we thought we knew about that incident.


A lot about Delvonte Tisdale's death remains a mystery.

The Charlotte teenager's badly-damaged body was found in a Boston suburb in late 2010. Massachusetts police theorized he had stowed away in the wheel well of a plane in Charlotte and fell as it descended into Logan International Airport. They declared it a homeland security breach.

The ensuing investigation of Charlotte Douglas International sparked tension between airport managers and city leaders that is still playing out in the current airport authority debate.

While Massachusetts police found evidence on Tisdale's body to support their stowaway theory, it remains unknown how Tisdale got into that plane in the first place.

CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe (file photo)
Credit Tasnim Shamma

  And yet, CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe did claim to know in an exchange with reporters in February 2011.

"Chief, correct me if I'm wrong," asked a reporter. "Kind of what I'm getting from the airport is you know how he likely got into the airport but for security reasons you can't say. Is that fair to say?"

"That's fair to say – yes," replied Monroe.

Now according to emails and documents related to that investigation, CMPD's findings – which implicated the Charlotte airport for lax security along its perimeter - were anything but certain.

First, some background about the report itself: Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr asked CMPD to investigate how Tisdale got into the wheel well of a plane in Charlotte, because he says TSA refused to do it.  

So, in December 2010 – a month after Tisdale's mangled body was found in Massachusetts - CMPD convened an investigation task force that included TSA, the FBI, the FAA and one of Orr's top deputies at the airport, Herbert Judon.

The notes Judon compiled from those meetings say that by late January 2011, the investigation  "was literally at a dead end."

He continues: "The entire investigation team seemed frustrated and CMPD closed the investigation."

But, you wouldn't know that from CMPD's final report or from Chief Monroe's comments to the press.

"We conducted a very extensive investigation along several different lines," said Monroe in that February 2011 conversation with Charlotte reporters. "(We had) great cooperation from a number of our federal partners and, with that, we've come to some reasonable conclusions.  But more importantly, we've come up with some very sound and focused recommendations that take us light years into the future as it relates to airport security."

Those recommendations are "what we're most pleased about," added Monroe.

Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr speaks at a City Council meeting. (file photo)
Credit Julie Rose

  And they're what prompted Aviation Director Jerry Orr to write the Chief an angry memo.

"The allegations and recommendations" in the report, writes Orr "are irrelevant, incorrect, unfounded and possibly harmful."

Orr says the airport's security program is governed by "an exhaustive set of federal regulations" that CMPD made no attempt to understand.

Orr would not comment on tape for this story, but says he stands by the memo.

Though the version of the report released to the public is heavily redacted, a few things are clear:

It rules out the possibility Tisdale came through a TSA checkpoint or exterior door. It also mentions "some video surveillance to support that Tisdale did not access the aircraft" while it was waiting for passengers at the gate.

The report's final conclusion is blacked-out, but the implication is that Tisdale must have come over – or through - the 19-mile perimeter fence, which is the airport's responsibility to secure.

Soon Jerry Orr was testifying at a Congressional hearing on airport perimeter security, and trying to set the record straight.

 "Ultimately the available evidence could neither prove nor disprove that a security breach had actually occurred at Charlotte," said Orr at that July 2011 hearing.

Many passed his comments off as "sour grapes." But Orr had seen the full report – without redactions – and he knew CMPD had left something out. That video footage that led them to conclude Tisdale had not come through a TSA checkpoint?  

Orr testified:"The report fails to acknowledge that they could not conclusively rule out this possibility because TSA had failed to preserve their surveillance video of the checkpoints and some of it was lost."  

TSA only kept video footage for 30 days, says Orr. And since CMPD's investigation didn't start until a month after Tisdale's body was found, there were gaps in the film. TSA will not confirm or deny that.

TSA spokesman Jon Allen says only that there was a "thorough review" of video footage.

There are other examples of CMPD failing to mention what it didn't find in its investigation.

"Attempted to lift latent prints off the gate and swabbed for DNA residue," says the report. They found nothing, according to Herbert Judon's investigation notes.

They collected soil samples to match with soil on Tisdale's body, but there was no match. "Again," writes Judon, "this was not mentioned in the summary report."

The plane police thought Tisdale stowed-away on belonged to US Airways. Until now, the airline has said little about the incident. But a lawsuit brought by the teen's family was recently dismissed, so US Airways is opening up.

"We are not aware of any evidence that the young man ever breached security or was in the wheel well of a US Airways aircraft or any other aircraft," says the company, in a statement to WFAE.  "Due to this lack of evidence, we do not think that this tragedy should have been cited as a reason for policy changes at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Our sympathies are with the Tisdale family."

Eighteen months after CMPD's report, the recommendations Monroe was so pleased with became the basis of city manager Curt Walton's decision to disband the airport's own police force and have CMPD takeover law enforcement at the airport.

The move added $2 million a year to the airport's security costs and so infuriated Aviation Director Jerry Orr that he called it "a debacle" in one internal email.

That change helped ignite the current effort to get the airport out of the city's control and into the hands of an independent authority.

WFAE asked Chief Monroe why he said he knew how Tisdale accessed the airport when CMPD's investigation was unable to determine that. He did not reply directly, but sent a statement saying he had reviewed the documents WFAE obtained and found "no additional information that would change our findings or assessment of the Tisdale investigation."

Monroe continues, "CMPD's focus now is to continue working with Airport Operations in addressing all security related matters."

WFAE's Julie Rose discusses story with All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey.

RELATED DOCUMENTS

CMPD's Report of the Tisdale/Airport Investigation (redacted by CMPD and TSA).

Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr's memo to CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe about the investigation report.

Deputy Aviation Director Herbert Judon's notes from the investigation task force.

Judon's analysis of the CMPD Tisdale/Airport Investigation report.