Polaneczky: Innocent frequent flier detained after run-in with TSA

Roger Vanderklok and his wife, Eleanor, who thought the worst when her husband went off the grid after a bag screening at PHL. DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Roger Vanderklok and his wife, Eleanor, who thought the worst when her husband went off the grid after a bag screening at PHL. DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: February 05, 2015

APPARENTLY, working as a supervisor for the Transportation Security Administration at Philadelphia International Airport comes with a perk: You get to throw people in jail for no good reason and still keep your job.

If that's not the case, why is Charles Kieser still employed by the TSA?

Roger Vanderklok had the misfortune of going through Kieser's security-screening area at 8 a.m. Jan. 26, 2013, in Terminal B.

Vanderklok, 57, is a Philly architect who runs half-marathons. Twice a month, he flies around the country for weekend races.

On this day, he was headed to Miami. In his carry-on bag was a packet of PowerBars and a heart-monitoring watch. When the bag went through the X-ray scanner, the items looked suspicious to a TSA agent whom Kieser supervises.

For the next 30 minutes, screeners checked the bag several times. Vanderklok told them that a tube-shaped case in the bag contained his watch. Then he was asked if his bag contained "organic matter." Vanderklok said no, as he thought "organic matter" meant fruits or vegetables.

PowerBars, which contain milk, grain and sugar, are considered "organic matter" and can resemble a common explosive. Terrorists often use a small electronic device, like a watch, to detonate the explosive. Hence the agent's concern.

Once the items were deemed harmless, Vanderklok says, he told Kieser that if someone had only told him what "organic matter" meant, he could have saved everyone a lot of trouble. Kieser then became confrontational. Vanderklok says he calmly asked to file a complaint. He then waited while someone was supposedly retrieving the proper form.

Instead, Kieser summoned the Philadelphia Police. Vanderklok was taken to an airport holding cell, and his personal belongings - including his phone - were confiscated while police "investigated" him.

Vanderklok was detained for three hours in the holding cell, missing his plane. Then he was handcuffed, taken to the 18th District at 55th and Pine and placed in another cell.

He says that no one - neither the police officers at the airport nor the detectives at the 18th - told him why he was there. He didn't find out until he was arraigned at 2 a.m. that he was being charged with "threatening the placement of a bomb" and making "terroristic threats."

Vanderklok's Kafkaesque odyssey finally ended at 4 a.m., when his wife paid 10 percent of his $40,000 bail.

When I heard this story, my first thought was that Vanderklok had to have said or done something outrageous for others to respond with such alarm. In fact, Kieser said as much at Vanderklok's trial on April 8, 2013.

Under oath, Kieser told the court that he had been monitoring Vanderklok's interaction with the bag screener because "I saw a passenger becoming agitated. Hands were in the air. And it's something we deal with regularly. But I don't let it go on on my checkpoint."

Kieser intervened, he said, and that's when Vanderklok complained that the screening was "delaying him." While he said this, he "had both hands with fingers extended up toward the ceiling up in the air at the time and shaking them."

Vanderklok also "put his finger in my face. And he said, 'Let me tell you something. I'll bring a bomb through here any day I want.' And he said you'll never find it."

Vanderklok repeated the aggressive finger-pointing two more times, Kieser testified.

But here's the thing: Airport surveillance videos show nothing of the sort.

Throughout the search, Vanderklok appears calm. His laptop computer is tucked under his arms and his hands are clasped in front of him the entire time. Without any fuss, he follows TSA agents when they move from one part of the screening area to another. He even smiles a little.

Not once does he raise his hands. Not once does he point a finger in Kieser's face. If anyone is becoming agitated, the video shows, it is Kieser.

Neither Kieser nor his colleagues appear alarmed about the bomb threat Vanderklok has allegedly made. They chat and laugh with one another behind a desk, check their cellphones. One sips a soda, another wanders around the area, straightening bins. Two more assist an elderly couple with their wheelchairs.

They do not summon the FBI, clear passengers from the area, don protective gear or appear to do anything suggesting there's looming danger.

And here's another thing: Kieser alleged that Vanderklok told him, "I'll bring a bomb through here any day I want. And . . . you'll never find it." But that's not what Kieser told police, according to the report taken by the responding officer. The report reads that Vanderklok, frustrated, told Kieser, "Anybody could bring a bomb in here and nobody would know."

The first statement is a threat, forbidden by law. The second is an opinion, protected by it.

Vanderklok says he made neither statement. Yet he was treated like the Shoe Bomber.

Even talking about it now, two years later, rattles him.

"I was scared to death. I have never been arrested in my life, never had handcuffs put on," he says. "Throughout the night, I was in a dark place; no one knew where I was. I thought, 'I could fall off the face of the earth right now, and no one would know it.' "

While Vanderklok was worrying, so was his wife, Eleanor. When her husband travels, his routine is to call her when he boards the plane, when he lands and when he arrives at his hotel. This time, no calls. Nor did he respond to the increasingly panicked messages she left him.

She called his Miami hotel. He'd never checked in. She called the airline. He'd never boarded the plane. She called the city's hospitals. He wasn't in any of them. Finally, she called 9-1-1.

"I was so scared. I didn't know what to do with myself," says Eleanor Vanderklok. "A million scenarios go through your head."

She was waiting for an officer to arrive at the couple's Center City home to take her report when the phone rang. A police officer told her that her husband had been arrested and was awaiting arraignment. When she learned why, she was shocked.

"My husband has been on planes hundreds of times," she says. "Not once was there a problem. This was out of the blue."

At trial, Kieser was the first and only witness to testify. Municipal Judge Felice Stack acquitted Vanderklok of all charges within minutes of hearing Kieser's testimony. Vanderklok's lawyer, Thomas Malone, didn't get a chance to question the Philadelphia police officers and detectives who were involved in Vanderklok's arrest. Nor did he get to show the surveillance video that contradicted Kieser.

"The police at the airport never even questioned Mr. Vanderklok. They just detained him," says Malone. "The detectives at the 18th [District] also never spoke with him. He was charged based on a single allegation by one TSA employee."

Last week, Malone filed a suit on Vanderklok's behalf against the TSA, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security, alleging that Vanderklok was willfully deprived of his liberty because he had the gall to say that he wanted to file a complaint.

The city and the TSA declined to comment on the case. So allow me to.

Vanderklok's arrest reeks of payback from a TSA supervisor who - to give him the benefit of the doubt - was perhaps having a bad day on Jan. 26, 2013.

But that same supervisor's behavior on April 8, when he swore under oath to things that were not true, is not evidence of a bad day. It's evidence of someone who will stick to his story even if it means an innocent man may go to jail.

I don't know if that makes Kieser a bad man. But it sure doesn't make him a very good TSA employee.

It's unbelievable that he still has his job.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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