Car Dealer Rick Case Is Pressing Charges Against a TSA Officer Over a $450 Pen
Rick Case, who once sold more Hondas in a month than any other human being, entered the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport this June. Then a computer determined the level of inconvenience he would encounter.
The Smiths 02PN20 metal detector shows a visual readout each time a passenger walks through, indicating how much metal he's carrying. If it's enough — say, a handgun or a belt buckle — the display lights up and an alarm sounds, like a high-pitched ringing phone amid the slamming of plastic bins. The passenger is then diverted to a glassed-in compartment for a pat-down.
Some people carrying no metal at all are also selected for extra screening by the machine, at seemingly random times. It's a numbers game, a shot-in-the-dark statistical fight against the small chance of terrorism. By letting the machine make the selections, airport workers are insulated from being accused of human faults like prejudice or spite. A Midwestern grandma is as likely to get that extra pat-down as a Middle Eastern sheik.
But no machine can be truly random. Any "random" decision made by a computer is really based on a mathematical formula, an algorithm programmed into its memory by humans that produces an inconceivably long string of zeroes and ones that ultimately translates into either a yes or a no.
A person walks through and the machine and the random-search light is switched on, or not. The decisions made by the machine are not stupid or smart but inevitable. A computer cannot conceive of a world in which things happen just by chance, just as it cannot judge somebody a criminal or an honest, self-made man.
Rick Case was scheduled to fly to Denver on Frontier Airlines flight 387, which departs at 1:35 p.m. from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He was not traveling light.
He entered the center security lanes of the Terminal B TSA checkpoint with his wife, Rita, a dark-haired woman who met Case at a Honda dealers' convention in 1978 when both of them were building car-dealing empires. She went first, carrying the family cat while her husband unloaded their baggage onto the rollers. Case, wearing a white and black silk shirt and black slacks, took off his shoes and removed his wallet and keys from his pockets. He loaded these items into plastic bins, along with his heavy Montblanc pen: a sentimental object obtained on a trip to Europe.
His wife removed the cat from its crate and carried it through the magnetometer. Case walked through, and the light flashed: random security check. He was directed into a special screening area.
What does this extra search involve? That's another decision meant to appear random, to deter scrutiny by those looking to game the system. But it too is the result of a formula: TSA officers conduct different searches and scans based on the time of day. The details are secret, following the Homeland Security protocol for Sensitive Security Information. Sometime between 12:20 and 12:40 p.m., Case was searched.
Meanwhile, the bags were backing up at the end of the x-ray line. People were streaming through, looking for their own items. Rita corralled the cat back into the crate. In a hurry, Case put on his shoes and gathered his belongings.
He was sitting on the plane when he realized he had forgotten his pen. When he landed, he called his 27-year-old daughter, Raquel, who grew up with her parents in a 6,000-square-foot home on Hillsboro Beach, and asked her to go to the airport and look for it.
In the resulting investigation by the Broward Sheriff's Office, two men would take lie-detector tests, five would sign written TSA employee statements, and one would break down sobbing in a confession. Whether Case's campaign contributions to the sheriff had anything to do with it, deputies were diligent in tracking down and charging the accused thief.
We do not know where in Europe the pen was purchased, why it was of such sentimental value to Case, or why he was flying a budget airline that day. We do not know whether he was visiting family in Boulder or the property he owns in Grand Lake, Colorado. He has not agreed to comment for this story.
But when he spoke to BSO deputies three weeks later, he made a choice. He willed the story to continue, forever making the pen into The Pen. Somebody had taken something important to him, and even though it had been returned to him, he wasn't letting the issue go.
"Are you willing to press charges against the person who took it?" a deputy asked him over the phone.
"Yes," Case replied.
This is Toussain Puddie as a little boy: The airport is his second home. Once or twice a week as evening falls, he rides in the passenger seat down the Palisadoes causeway to Norman Manley International, across the harbor from the hills of Kingston, Jamaica. While his father works the night shift as an airport firefighter, Toussain goes to sleep among the workers as they cook or play dominoes. Sometimes he climbs the tower to meet the air-traffic controllers and watch jet planes move across the tarmac.
His mother has already moved to Florida. Puddie's first ride on an airplane, when he is 9, takes him to live there. He eats curry chicken for dinner on the Air Jamaica evening flight, and before landing, he marvels at South Florida's expanse of lights.
This is Toussain Puddie, all grown up: He loves travel, likes wearing a uniform. He thinks about making it back to an airport as a ticket-counter agent. He interviews for a flight-attendant job at Continental's hub in Houston but realizes he's not the type of man who becomes a flight attendant. He works as a concierge at the Tides condominiums. Another job, for a telecommunications company, has him driving solo routes through Florida and Georgia, as far away as Charleston, South Carolina, always circling back to his family and his friends.
He takes the TSA job in April 2009. A decade earlier, this job would have been done by a private-sector employee of a firm like Wackenhut or Argenbright. He would not have received as much training, and he would not have known as much federally protected information. He would not have had undercover federal agents try to sneak dangerous items through the security line every once in a while, just to keep him on his toes.
But post 9/11, he has a very important job, with a standard-issue blue uniform and a chrome-faced badge. He works all positions, based on what's needed day-to-day. His favorites are watching the baggage x-ray monitor and conducting bag checks. He thinks he's good at the checks and efficient. He removes the suspicious sections from bags, runs them back through the machine, sorts out the items. He's puzzled and amused by the people who bring little Ziploc bags of sand back home from Florida. He makes about $12,000 a year with good benefits, working 20 hours a week part-time, like many of his fellow TSA officers.
He makes conversation with passengers so that they feel more at ease. During football season, he asks the passengers wearing jerseys about the score. When he sits at the podium and shines a little ultraviolet light on passports and driver's licenses, people sometimes ask him if he ever smiles. Then he smiles, which he does a lot, actually, and thinks, "Man, that's not me at all."
This is Toussain Puddie as an accused felon: He looks meaner in his mug shot than he does in person, broader, with an unshorn beard and v-neck jail scrubs. Thirty years old and six feet tall, he is "the defendant who is employed by the Transportation Security Administration in the capacity of a screener."
At Aventura Mall, ten minutes in traffic from the house with painted-on shutters where Puddie grew up, a well-suited clerk with silvered hair pulls a pen out of a glass case. Wearing gloves, he rests it in a box lined with velvet.
This isn't The Pen that Rick Case got in Europe, but it's the same model, introduced in 2007 and put together by hand at the Montblanc factory in the suburbs of Hamburg: the Starwalker Metal Rubber, Model No. 08857. It's heavy in the palm, balancing out across the fingers. The surface is hard and rubberized for grip, appearing graphite-gray in some lights and black in others. It's divided by intersecting lines of inset chrome. The barrel bulges out like a bullet point where the fingers grasp it; the silver clip curves assertively.
At the top of the pen is a clear polycarbonate dome, with a six-peaked star — the Montblanc logo, representing the namesake mountain's six glaciers — floating inside, suspended. Inside the pen's tightly threaded casing is a disposable ballpoint ink barrel, braced by a spring. Fountain-tip models are available, but this one, like Case's, is a standard twist-out.
Case's daughter told authorities that the pen was worth $450. Later, on the phone with police, Case recalled that he had bought it in Europe, where it cost about 300 euros. Ira Magsil, the loss prevention manager for Montblanc North America, said in a sworn statement that the pen's retail value is $470 and would only go up over the years.
So this is the item that rolled around in the bottom of a plastic tub for a few minutes on June 5, before supervisor Silvano Leger found it and handed it to lead officer Theo Vaca so he could announce its presence over the public-address system. Vaca made the announcement, which Case evidently did not hear down by the gate, and put the pen back into a plastic bowl for lost items.
Shortly afterward, Puddie arrived for his part-time afternoon shift, parking at the top floor of the rental-car garage and taking the elevated walkway to the checkpoint. Already in uniform, he signed in on the clipboard near the office, checked his assignment for the day, and passed the next five hours without incident.
Five minutes before 6 o'clock, Puddie went to see his supervisor in the office for clearance to end his shift. Then he went to the sharp-objects cabinet, just outside the office door, next to the flagpole. On top of it was the sign-out clipboard — and The Pen.
He picked it up, feeling its weight in his hands, which are large and will dwarf the common throwaway Bic. It wasn't unusual for an officer to grab a writing implement and keep it with him, and usually nobody noticed. Usually the pens didn't cost more than a few cents. Puddie wrote the time on the sign-out sheet: "1800" in deep-blue numerals.
Then he twisted the pen closed and put it into his shirt pocket, right under his badge.
The Broward Sheriff's Office has put significant time and manpower into the case of Case's pen. After Raquel Case reported the loss to the BSO office at the airport, Det. Robert Lerner called her to hear the facts again. He obtained copies of written statements from five TSA employees (not including Puddie) about where and when they had seen the pen.
On June 14, nine days after the disappearance, a deputy interrogated Vaca, the officer who had first announced the pen over the intercom. He pressed Vaca to say that he had taken it. "We need to get the pen back," he said. "There is a lot of sentimental value to this pen. The guy who owns it could probably buy a thousand of these pens, OK, but there is a lot of sentimental value."
"I don't have it, sir," said Vaca, laughing incredulously.
Case and his family have contributed thousands of dollars to local and national political candidates, both Democratic and Republican — including a hefty sum toward the campaign funds of Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti. Rick and Rita case and their two children, Ryan and Raquel, each donated a maximum $500 to Lamberti in both the primary and the general-election campaigns in 2008. Employees of Rick Case Automotive Group donated even more, giving at least $10,500 to Lamberti's 2008 campaigns. Lamberti's 2012 reelection campaign has not yet filed any finance reports.
In June 2009, the sheriff's office held a news conference to show off its new, two-seat, European-made Smart cars, acquired for workers to zip around the Fort Lauderdale airport. The cars were purchased from Case's dealership.
At the time, Case chased off hints that the car purchase might be payback for his political contribution. He told New Times that he had met Lamberti at a fundraiser and that when the sheriff mentioned he was looking for small, efficient cars to use at the airport and port, "I said, 'You really ought to look at a Smart car.' " His own dealership in Weston was one of the first Smart dealers in South Florida.
At the time, Lamberti refused to answer questions about the deal with Case and declined to respond to criticism that other, non-Honda cars would have been cheaper, more fuel efficient, and easier to maintain than the Smart cars.
Case has also made many philanthropic contributions, hosting a fundraiser for Women in Distress of Broward County and giving away bicycles to children in need. He also has provided some quasi-governmental help.
In 2004, Case approached Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman about setting up a satellite clerk's office inside his six-story Davie dealership (which also houses a barbershop, café, and voting locations for two precincts). Case agreed to front the remodeling costs. Now, citizens head to the dealership to pay for traffic citations, get their licenses reinstated, and even get married at the on-site chapel.
Forman dismisses any suggestion that Case's offer was meant to gain political influence and says that the businessman, with his record of generosity, was simply trying to do a good thing for the community.
Vaca, the TSA officer who announced the pen over the intercom, was brought in for a polygraph test a week after his questioning. He said he did not take the pen, and passed. The following day, Andrew Amato, an officer who started work at 1 p.m. on the day of Case's flight, along with Puddie, also passed a polygraph test.
An hour later, deputies identified Puddie as the man putting The Pen into his shirt pocket on surveillance videotape. Puddie was working his usual shift that day — Wednesday, June 22 — when he was told to report to the BSO office in Terminal 2. He walked downstairs, along the sidewalk that borders the arrivals roadway, and into the office. A detective told him to take a seat and lectured him about the difference between accidentally taking something and knowingly stealing.
The detectives showed him a picture of the pen. Puddie realized why he was there and what he had done. He never thought the investigation would come this far, and the weeks since the incident had only magnified the damage. He told the detectives that the pen was in his apartment.
They drove him home immediately in the back of a detective's unmarked car. When they got to his girlfriend's home at the Isles in Plantation, he asked the detectives if they could let him go in alone, because he didn't want his girlfriend to know what was going on. They obliged, waiting outside.
"You're home early!" called Puddie's girlfriend from another room.
"Yeah, I just had to come get something," Puddie called, looking around for the pen. "I've got to rush back to work." He left without seeing her and handed over the pen.
During the drive back to the airport BSO office, he thought he heard one of the officers say to the other, "Great job."
Did that pen belong to you when you took it?"
"No, it did not."
"Do you know who it belonged to?"
"During the course of the day that you were working... did anybody ask about a pen?"
"No, nobody." Puddie, who had just signed away his Fifth Amendment rights in a bout of obedience, began to cry.
"What happened on the following day? What did they say?"
"Somebody just said that... if you find somebody's property, to bring it to the office, because somebody lost a pen the day before," sniffed Puddie.
"At that point when they made the announcement, did you realize that you... in fact, had that pen?"
"Yeah. I had the pen."
"OK, and why did you not return it at that time?"
"I was scared."
"Have you ever done anything like this before?"
"Can you tell me why you did this?"
"I don't know. The pen is a, the pen is, the pen is a g — , nice pen."
Puddie had to take off his blue TSA shirt before deputies led him, handcuffed in back, to the police car, then did that cop-show thing where they pushed down his head to help him get into the back seat. A judge let him out of jail the next morning to await prosecution. The charge: grand theft, which can be levied in Florida for values as low as $300.
TSA officers inconvenience everybody. They don't know you, what you've accomplished, who you love, the things you say when you get drunk. They don't know whether you're terrified of flying, where you're going, how you made your money, how you spend it. They are nameless with nametags, faceless with unsmiling faces, scanning your baggage and touching your thighs.
If you're wearing jeans and a business shirt, carrying a laptop and some shaving supplies, Toussain Puddie could look at you and know you're probably not traveling for long. If you're dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a sunburn, you might be carrying bags of Florida sand. If you're dressed in a black-and-white silk shirt with black trousers, with a Montblanc pen?
Puddie had never seen Rick Case until he saw his name on the report accusing him of theft. Then he Googled the name and found a promotional photo: Rick and Rita in their dealership shirts, sitting in a convertible, flying high over a backdrop of clouds.
Puddie has moved back in with his parents until this thing blows over, which it might not do anytime soon, because he's been hesitant to accept the state's offer. He would need to admit guilt, accept probation-style monitoring for a year, and send a written apology to Case. After completion of that program, he could apply to the court to have the criminal charge expunged.
He told his lawyer, Leland Garvin, that he wants to go to trial. At first, it was because he wanted to get his job back. Now that he's warming up to the idea that the TSA might never rehire him, it's largely because he has nothing else to do.
When the State Attorney's Office first got the case from the sheriff's office, Felony Division Chief Jeff Marcus had his doubts. All this for a lost pen? He gave the file a read-through, though, and when he got to Puddie's confession that he knowingly kept the pen, he decided the charge was legitimate.
Puddie now spends his days going to job interviews, organizing nightlife events with friends, and reselling Aroma Everfresh air-freshener sachets that he buys wholesale, 100 at a time, to friends and family. On Sundays, he goes to a Jamaican restaurant to watch football games, eating brown-stew chicken and playing dominoes, just as the men in the airport did when he was young.
He wasn't going to keep the pen. He was going to give it to his father. The TSA prefers black ink anyway.
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