Johnnie Lockett Thomas

Johnnie Lockett Thomas is one of hundreds of Americans who've suffered delays, friskings and other indignities at U.S. airports since the 9/11 attacks because their names matched (or nearly matched) those of suspected criminals or terrorists. Mrs. Thomas spoke with No Place to Hide Editor Deborah George.


Johnnie Lockett Thomas: It began in March of last year, of 2002. D. McNamer wrote an article in the New Yorker that explains that in great detail. I was flying from La Guardia to Boston so that I could go to [Martha's] Vineyard, and my name came up on the computer and suddenly the ticket agent asked for my ID back, and I don't drive ... so I fly with a passport. And he called for security and the security person came in, in uniform, with her hand on her weapon, and the ticket agent was alarmed enough to say, "No, no, no, no, Mrs. Thomas hasn't done anything. Mrs. Thomas hasn't done anything."

She took my ID and she went back into another room and she was gone for about 30 or 35 minutes before she came back. I missed the plane, and I was allowed to fly. I found it very upsetting. I didn't ask why, because I have been stopped a lot in those circumstances. The Treasury Department has stopped me to make sure I wasn't carrying more cash than you're allowed to carry out of the question - out of the country.

Deborah George: Wait, you had been stopped a lot?

Thomas: Just over my life, over the period of my life. I've been stopped quite a lot. People don't seem to like my name. They don't like the way I dress. Police officials say I fit the profile of some kind. And usually it's been about money or drugs, apparently.

George: You?

Thomas: Yes.

George: Tell us how old you are.

Thomas: I'm 71 years old. Traveling with my daughter, you know, who's 30 years younger than I, my son - none of my children are ever stopped. I am always stopped. I've been stopped traveling with my husband, when I was carrying his luggage. For example, once his belt buckle and an alarm clock came together and they thought there was something wrong. I traveled with another of my husband's relatives. We went to Alaska together. We brought giant bottles of, oh my gosh some kind of a liqueur, Bailey's. Bailey's Irish Cream. She sailed through; I got stopped. [They] opened up the suitcase; I got searched. Nobody wants to fly with me. Usually they will check in before I do and then they just stand and watch the hilarity of me going through disasters. On the occasion I was stopped about the money, my husband had gotten on the plane first and I didn't come; he finally realized I wasn't there and came running back up. The treasury agent flashes his badge, and my husband flashes his badge and the guy from the Treasury Department says, "Oh, I didn't know she was with you." And I was allowed to get on the plane.

George: But this is different.

Thomas: This is very different. Because in this case it's my name coming up on a computer. I got so upset. It is so upsetting, it is so frightening to me. In this instance I ended up in the emergency room about three days later because my blood pressure soared to the heights, if your blood pressure gets to be 200 over 100 you must go to the hospital.

George: Which Instance?

Thomas: The very first instance, flying from LaGuardia.

George: So, you got on the plane but you didn't ask questions at that point?

Thomas: I just thought it was another freak of nature! And I just knew I was terribly upset about it, but I thought I was coping quite well. And I only discovered, you know, as my blood pressure continued to go up and about three days later I was forced to go to the emergency room.

And then coming back, when I was flying out of Boston, the name came up again. This time I asked the young woman, she said, "I'm not going to embarrass you by taking you away, into the back room. I will simply take your ID and go and see what we can do about this. And she came back again, 30, 35 minutes later, and I finally asked why. And she said your name is on the master terrorist list. And I was simply stunned. And I said, "What can I do? Can I carry more ID? If I bring my birth certificate?"

She said, "No. We are required to call the state police, the state police call the FBI, and the FBI, they're the only ones who can clear you to fly." And this was on a Saturday. I found myself, I cannot tell you the fear - it was just overwhelming, overwhelming beyond belief.

Again the blood pressure started to go up. On Monday morning I called the FBI, you call your local FBI office and my local FBI office was in Patterson, New Jersey I called the local FBI agent and they gave me someone's voice mail and I left a message, and a gentleman called back in about 5 to 10 minutes. I told him I tried to fly. They said, "Your name is on the master terrorist list." [I said,] "What can I do to get it off?" He said, "If you want your name taken off the master terrorist list you have to hire an attorney."

George: Here, I'm just going to put this - so we don't rattle papers. Start again, what did he say?

Thomas: He said, "If you want your name off the list you have to hire a lawyer." I said, "May I have your name?"

And he said, "I can't give you my name." And he hung up.

I was back in my home territory so instead of having to go to the emergency room I went to my doctor's office, where again the blood pressure was over the top and, in this case, my heart rate had gotten out of control. He said, "You're going to have to stop flying, find a way, through yoga, through something, to relax," he said, "because otherwise this is going to kill you."

George: So the agent wasn't very reassuring to you and sounds like he wasn't terribly helpful either, didn't really explain much.

Thomas: Well, I considered him rather rude. 'I can't give you my name?' Unless he's working under cover, there's no reason why he shouldn't give me his name. And as to an explanation there was absolutely nothing, it was absolutely, it was quite dreadful, as a matter of fact.

George: What happened after that?

Thomas: After that, well, I have called every friend I have in America. Friends, especially my friends here in Washington, were alarmed. They were saying things like, if your name is on a terrorist list, what other kinds of lists are you on? What does this mean? How did you get on the list? They took it very, very, very seriously, and they were terribly concerned. My friends include a lot of people who had been fairly high-ranking in government and my friends include a lot of people who are in the media. Everybody was concerned.

My black and my Jewish friends, in particular, kept saying, 'Hitler,' kept saying, 'Kafka,' 'Orwell.' My relatives begged me not to fly anymore. Well, that's not practical. Besides, it's so nonsensical. If I were a terrorist, they would have taken me into custody. So I just couldn't believe this was going to keep happening.

In that case I finally called Congressman [Bill] Pascrell and Sen. [Robert] Torricelli. Meanwhile I went online to try to find out what I could do for myself.

I called a newspaperwoman out in Miles City, Montana I had been told to call the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], and the telephone numbers that were in my local directory were out of service. The woman from Miles City called someone from AP [Associated Press] and AP told her to call the terrorism expert of the FBI in Billings, Montana. I called him back and that gentleman found it hilarious. He said, "I don't know a lot of 70-year-old black women who are terrorists."

A lot of my friends - that was their reaction. Because they though, I have a tendency to tell things funny. And in this instance people started laughing immediately, until they realized it wasn't a joke. This is absolutely what was happening to me.

George: So tell me how it progressed after that.

Thomas: The next two times I flew, I had the same problem; it happened again, again. The fourth time I flew on US Air was out of Boston again. In this case I had a ticket agent who was just absolutely dreadful to me. All of the others had been very nice, very kind, very understanding; they understood that this made no sense.

In one instance I was standing in line to buy a ticket, using senior coupons that I had purchased a year before, and I was delayed for 35 to 40 minutes while a young man, a young Arab man came up and bought maybe four or five tickets paying cash, got on the airplane, and I was being detained.

They said, "Well we don't want to profile." On the other hand, how many of the terrorists were septuagenarian African American women?

They started going through my luggage. It got to the point where I was being examined two or three times before I got to the plane and then told, "Run to the plane because they're holding it for you."

George: examined where? At what points?

Thomas: With the last gentleman, in Boston, they took me back to a room away from the gate where they x-rayed my luggage. Then they took me to the regular security place where they unpacked everything, packed it back. I was at the last gate, when I got to the last gate, they unpacked again and wand [scanned] me before I could get on the plane. Again, the blood pressure [was] out of control. The entire thing, that was the worst experience I had.

This gentleman, his voice was, he thought he had a "live one." That's the only way I can describe it. Periodically I'll get the ones who think, 'We've got a live one here.' He was fairly rude, very officious, became very officious, "Don't leave here!" And then he was talking to someone on the phone, "Well I've told them some of what's going on but I haven't told them everything."

By that time I was traveling with an open cell phone so that D. McNamer, the young woman that wrote the article for the New Yorker, could hear what was happening, because it became increasingly difficult for people to understand what was really happening. They kept thinking I was exaggerating, that it wasn't really the way I thought it was. After she listened to the phone call she said it was as though she had been there in person. She could hear the tones of the voices; she could hear what was being said; the entire experience became a part of her experience as well. That was very helpful.

Then I stopped flying United Air and started flying Delta when I was going to the west. My name on Delta has always been slightly misspelled on my frequent flyer card. And I didn't have a problem. I thought perhaps, I assumed that was the reason why I didn't have a problem, because my name was spelled differently. They don't pay much attention between your ID and the way the name is on the frequent flyer card.

George: How was it different?

Thomas: It was simply that my middle initial had been added to my first name. So instead of being "Johnnie," middle initial "L.," "Thomas," it was "Johnniel." That's the way they always addressed me, as "Johnniel Thomas." And I didn't have a problem between May of last year and, I think it was June of this year when I got stopped again. I had become complacent. [I thought] nothing was going to happen. But I got stopped in Billings Montana.

And so I pulled out my letter from Congressman Pascrell where the FBI had promised they would take my name off the list. And I gave it to the young woman. Meanwhile other FBI agents, because Sen. [Max] Baucus's office has called the FBI in Billings and they told him, "We don't do that. We don't take names off the list."

I gave the young woman the letter and she went and talked to the police again and she came back and said, "They say you're a different man this year."

They say you're a different man this year. They were asking her questions like, "How tall is he?"

"It's a woman."

"What color are his eyes?"

"It's a woman."

This went on for a bit before they were satisfied and I was allowed to fly. And I found it upsetting; I can't remember where I was going on that trip. Oh, I was coming here to Washington D.C. Yes.

George: So, who is this terrorist who has you name

Thomas: Oh, well, last year it wasn't a terrorist. This is the thing. Last year it was a man named Christian Longo who had murdered his wife and children in Oregon.

George: Christian Longo?

Thomas: But he had an alias of John Thomas Christopher. I think he was 27 years old, Caucasian, 6 feet tall, blue eyes, blond hair, reddish blond hair and he was already in custody.

I must tell you, when I got no satisfaction from the FBI in northern New Jersey, I called the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and in those days the TSA would answer the phone and there was a wonderful woman there who told me why it was on the list. That's changed now. Now, "We can't tell you why because that would alert the bad guys. So we can't tell you; we can't give you any information."

George: Are these two different lists?

Thomas: This year, as I said, I'm a different man. Last year I was told it was called the Master Terrorist list. This year they're calling it the "Don't-Fly List."

George: Right, but is it - what did you call it, the "Master Terrorist List?"

Thomas: That's what I was told last year, the "Master Terrorist List." This year they're calling it the "Don't Fly List." Every changes, nothing is ever the same twice in a row. I have been stopped because of my blood-pressure cuff with which I must travel. I have been stopped because of a silver evening case that they didn't know how to open. I had to tell them how- but you can't touch it to open so they won't break it, I said, "Please. It has a sliding lock" I've been stopped for things that you can't imagine because people simply didn't know what they were.

If your name comes up, that's all they think about. Your name has come up and therefore - I even have had friends who were asking me, "Well, you must have done something." Because they can't believe that our government could make, could do any - ... Because they don't know their history about Enzio Pinza in the First World War, or Joe DiMaggio's parents in the First World War being considered, you know, being picked up. And so they just assume that you must have done something. They can't quite figure out quite what I've done, but they assume I must have done something.

I talked at great length. Finally, I was told that Christian Longo had been on America's Most Wanted list. In fact, I was sent the information. And so I called the FBI, the office that handles the Ten Most Wanted list; and they thought it was amusing! I talked to - and they thought it was amusing, but they also said, "We understand that this is horrible for you." They said, "We put people on, but we can't take people off."

They finally directed me to Mr. Rob Haley, who was the head of the criminal division of the FBI here. And Mr. Haley was unfailingly polite, answered all my questions, finally told me yes indeed, they had put my name on a list but only gave it to two or three airlines I think; neither of those airlines was U.S. Air. And one airline I guess refused to do it. [Mr. Haley] admitted that Mr. Longo had been in custody. He called the FBI in Oregon, he called the FBI down in Texas, because down in Texas is where they had him first, I guess. But at the end of a week of conversations back and forth, he came to the conclusion that there was simply nothing that could be done.

George: I don't understand why can't they take someone off the list.

Thomas: [They say,] "We don't do that." And at the end Mr. Hailey also said, "I think you can understand that we sometimes have to stop, perhaps he said, "It's better to stop 100 innocents than to let one guilty get away." And I thought that was just the opposite of what our country was about. And I don't understand how stopping the innocent - in fact, it would seem to me that that's just how the guilty get away. If we're spending all of this time concentrating on someone who's been investigated again and again and again and again, and we know that person is no risk. Because if that person is a risk, again, that person should be in custody. I should be in custody if I'm a risk. I have committed no crime. I've never been accused of a crime. I've committed no offense. But without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, I am still being stopped.

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