NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — If attempted today, it's likely the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 could not be carried out. But for all the technology available in 2013, on this 25th anniversary of the terrorist act that killed 270 people in the air and on the ground in Scotland on Dec. 21, 1988, it's also likely that if investigated today, southwest Florida resident and former FBI agent Phil Reid also might not have solved the case.
In an 845-square-mile debris scene in Lockerbie, Scottish officers found minuscule pieces of evidence, clues that led Reid across the globe investigating what years later was found to be an act of terror carried out by the Libyan government and intelligence agent Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi.
They found clothing that had explosives residue on them, found the manufacturer who sold to one retail store and that store's shop owner who remembered selling those clothes to al-Megrahi. In today's globalized marketplace, it simply wouldn't have happened.
"Luck. It was pure luck," said Reid, now a Naples resident. "I mean to be able to find pieces of clothing in Lockerbie, Scotland, they're finding these burned up, blew up pieces of clothing and being able to find some identification on it that said these were manufactured at this company called Yorkie Clothiers in Malta, then to go to that Yorkie Clothiers and they say 'Oh, yeah, that's our label.' And they go to their records and say, 'We sold this particular item to this store'? Luck."
Reid tracked down that store and met Tony Gauci, a stout and sharp Maltese shop owner who remembered the Libyan man who bought the clothes — specifically because the customer didn't care if he was grabbing men's or women's garments or what size the clothes were, Reid recalled.
"When we showed Tony Gauci a photo lineup, he picked that picture out of eight photos. He picked it out but he said, 'This looks like the guy that bought the clothes, but he looks 10 years younger. If he was 10 years older, it would look like him.'"
Investigators quickly realized the photo they had shown Gauci was about a decade old and al-Megrahi had aged from the time the photo was taken to when he walked into Gauci's store the day before the bombing.
Reid credited the Scottish police with finding all the necessary evidence on the ground that led to the conclusion of the case. But had the 747 left London Heathrow Airport on time for its flight to New York's JFK airport, Reid believes those integral pieces of his investigation would have been forever lost at sea.
The plan had gone wrong.
The FBI wasn't supposed to find the Toshiba cassette player where the explosives detonated, or the manufacturer of the timing device, made in Switzerland, and certainly not any fabric from the clothes the bomb was enshrouded by. The plane was intended to explode over the Atlantic Ocean, Reid believes, erasing all traces of evidence.
It's the timing device itself that led him to that conclusion.
Reid said it was programmable for as many as 999 days out and he believes that Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, who was tried and acquitted in a Scottish Court in The Netherlands, was responsible for getting the unauthorized luggage onto the Pan Am flight in Malta. The explosives, made of Semtex, were live when an "official" but false luggage tag was made for the brown Samsonite suitcase — which officials recovered just enough of to determine what kind of bag it was — and secured on the Air Malta flight to Germany.
The explosives were live when they arrived in Germany, when they arrived in England, and when the suitcase eventually made it on to the Pan Am plane bound for New York.
But the plane departed more than an hour late. Had it been delayed even more, Reid fears, it could have exploded at the airport.
"If the plane had left on time and took a normal, typical direction from Heathrow, it would've probably blown up over the Atlantic. And then you wouldn't have had any evidence," he said.
But they still would have had the Libyan double agent who cracked the case wide open.
Reid eventually came across documentation made about a suspicious event the day before the bombing. A man, later determined to be a Libyan intelligence officer and a double agent working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, had made a report that he saw a brown luggage bag being ferried around the security checks. It was a huge break, but Reid soon found the man had moved to Tripoli with his wife and was trying to live under the radar.
Enter the CIA.
"The bananas are rotten," Reid said with a grin. "That was the code that he was found out."
It was part of an elaborate rendition, or snatch, in which the unnamed operative was told to get to Naples, Italy, and en route, he was taken aboard a vessel in international waters, where Reid debriefed him.
"He didn't know if we thought he was involved or if we thought he was a witness," Reid said. "I was there to determine if he really was that golden nugget."
It would be 2001 before al-Megrahi was convicted in a Scottish court on an abandoned U.S. military base in Utrecht, Netherlands — the only terms Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi would agree to.
Al-Megrahi was held in a Scottish prison after his conviction until he was diagnosed with cancer and the Scottish government surprised the world by granting him a compassionate release so he could return to Libya where he died a few years later.
The classified investigation kept Reid from being able to share much as the case was ongoing. He wasn't closely tied to many of the victims' families because they wanted answers he wasn't permitted to give. But once, while meeting with some of the relatives of students from Syracuse University in New York, Reid met Joan Dater.
Her daughter, Gretchen Joyce Dater, 20, was killed as the student, seated in 52J, was returning home to the New Jersey area.
"She gave me a picture of her daughter's painting," Reid said. "She just asked me to keep it with me to remind me of how important it was to find out who was responsible. And I did. I kept it with me."
Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, http://www.naplesnews.com