Man charged in hoax that diverted plane

Pizza cook, involved in love triangle, phoned in bogus terrorism tip


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PHILADELPHIA -- A 26-year-old pizza cook was charged Friday with phoning in the bogus terrorism tip that rerouted a Texas-bound US Airways flight back to Philadelphia on Thursday under a national spotlight.

But it wasn't the charges against Kenneth W. Smith Jr. that were compelling as much as the story behind them.

Mr. Smith, authorities said, was entangled in a 21st-century love triangle, a text-message and Facebook war of words with his girlfriend's former beau that spiraled into a federal crime.

When the ex-boyfriend, identified as Christopher Shell, posted a "compromising" photo of the unnamed woman on Facebook, Mr. Smith decided to "avenge" her, according to an affidavit filed in the case.

Mr. Smith told federal ATF agents that he walked to a pay phone Thursday morning and, using a fake name, called Philadelphia International Airport police to report that Mr. Shell was smuggling liquid explosives onto a flight to Dallas that morning, the affidavit states.

The plane, with 74 passengers and crew members, was diverted back to Philadelphia, where cameras snapped and Twitter feeds crackled as officials evacuated the jet and removed Mr. Shell in handcuffs before determining that he was the victim of a hoax.

Mr. Shell, 29, a South Philadelphia resident who had been trying to get home to Texas for his birthday, told investigators that "his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend, Kenny," were probably behind the call, according to the affidavit from Special Agent David L. O'Brien of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Agents found Mr. Smith at his job and confronted him, and he later confessed, the filing says. They have not identified or charged his girlfriend.

On Friday afternoon, Mr. Smith appeared in handcuffs and green prison garb before U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry S. Perkin. He said nothing during the brief proceeding except to acknowledge that he did not own a handgun or passport, and that he works at Three Brothers Pizza & Pasta in Philadelphia's Port Richmond neighborhood.

Judge Perkin freed him on $250,000 bail, but ordered him to submit to drug testing and have daily contact with pretrial services officers. He was charged with falsely reporting a threat against an airplane, an offense punishable by as much as 10 years in prison.

An hour or so later, Mr. Smith strode from the federal courthouse with his lawyer, William J. Brennan, but declined to discuss the case. Mr. Brennan said his client was shocked and "very embarrassed" by all the attention. He described Mr. Smith as a hardworking Philadelphia native who works at least 60 hours a week as a pizza cook, and who has never before been charged with a serious crime.

Mr. Brennan said he had seen the Facebook photo that allegedly led to the bogus terrorism tip. He declined to describe it, except to say, "It's the kind of photo that could incense a boyfriend."

Prosecutors have a month to indict Mr. Smith or work out a plea or resolution. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams declined to comment as she left the courtroom.

Mr. Shell, who declined or ignored interview requests after his 15 minutes of infamy Thursday, was arrested later that night when he finally landed in Texas. Authorities there had outstanding warrants for him related to drug-possession charges. Mr. Shell was released Friday afternoon from the Collin County Jail after posting a $3,445 cash bond.

The pizzeria owner declined to talk at length with reporters Friday. But when asked whether Mr. Smith would be returning to his job, owner Leo Berardi said, "Absolutely not."

nation


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