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.