Missing Plane, Pilot Baffle Investigators

ByAdrienne Mand

April 19, 2004 -- Ben Charles Padilla, an aircraft mechanic, flight engineer and cargo pilot, traveled the world plying his trade for various private companies.

He'd often keep in touch with family members from faraway locales, so it was no surprise in May 2003 when he replied to an e-mail about his mother having a heart attack with news that he was in Africa refurbishing a plane and would contact her as soon as he could.

His family has not heard from him since, and the FBI believes the 51-year-old was aboard a Boeing 727 that took off without authorization from an airport in Angola on May 25 and promptly vanished. At the time, U.S. officials told ABCNEWS they suspected the plane was stolen to run drugs or guns, and some theorized it was crashed for insurance money.

Though there was fear that the former passenger plane, which the FBI says was reconfigured to carry diesel fuel, could be in the hands of terrorists eyeing a Sept. 11-style attack, there was no evidence to link it to terrorism.

The incident touched off an intensive investigation by U.S. intelligence agencies that continues nearly a year later. The plane and Padilla remain unaccounted for — and the mysterious circumstances around their disappearance leave many unanswered questions.

How could a plane vanish? Who has it now? And what happened to Padilla, who was no stranger to assignments like the one that took him to Angola?

Waiting for a Break

"It's been almost a year and I know really no more now than I did in the beginning," said Joseph Padilla of Pensacola, Fla., younger brother of the missing man. Family members are baffled by his disappearance but maintain Ben Padilla would not knowingly have been involved in any illegal activities.

Joseph Padilla suspects there may have been some sort of dispute of ownership between the company that hired his brother and someone else, and that Ben got caught in the middle.

Joseph Padilla stays in contact with the FBI and State Department for updates on the case and provides them with leads from reporters and his own research. There have been glimmers of hope for a breakthrough — a crash in Benin at Christmastime, a tip that the plane had been spotted in Guinea — but investigators have told him they were not the missing plane.

"[The investigation] is still ongoing," said FBI Special Agent Jeff Westcott. "We're investigating possibilities. Every now and then a lead will come in. The FBI, working with our agents overseas, will aggressively pursue that." But so far, he said, the leads "haven't amounted to anything."

The agency is considering any scenario, including terrorism, but "we really don't speculate," said Westcott. "It's a concern — I wouldn't really characterize it beyond that."

The State Department, which is in charge of locating missing persons abroad, has not learned much about Padilla's whereabouts. "It's still open," said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the Department of State. "We stay in touch with the family of the pilot, but they haven't heard anything. We haven't heard anything. It's really been a very long time since we've had any news or even any leads.

"Certainly there are a lot of hypotheticals," Patt said, without giving specifics. "We just don't have any basis yet for really being able to give an answer that would be meaningful."

A Frustrating Process

Joseph Padilla, who is retired, spends much of his time checking in with the FBI and State Department and looking for information about the case on the Internet. "I always look at every news organization in America and across the world," he said. "I do that late at night, almost daily."

He is being helped by Florida attorney Martin Pedata, who is working pro bono to try to obtain more information. The government agencies have said they cannot be more open because of privacy provisions in the Freedom of Information Act that would require Ben Padilla's consent for his relatives to learn more.

Pedata hopes to establish a conservatorship, which would legally allow someone in the Padilla family to act on behalf of Ben, but there's no precedent for the current situation. "There's really no case out there that says this could be done," he said. "Theoretically, under Florida law, the conservator could step into the shoes to try to get around the defense that they can't tell more details."

Meanwhile, the family — which has already lost two other siblings — has struggled through holidays without Ben and "not knowing the status of my brother is just about to drive us crazy."

"The government can see that we are ordinary people," Joseph Padilla said, saying he's told investigators, "'Look, I'm a big boy now. You can tell me if my brother's deceased and you know it.' "

But they don't know, nor do they know the fate of the last plane that was in his charge. And that worries Joseph Padilla, too.

"As an individual, I could care less about this plane," he said. "But as an American, I want it found because this plane has 10 500-gallon fuel tanks."