Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"We are treating this as a possible terrorist activity."

Turnpike 'terror plot' might be false alarm

Two men in custody may work for prospective bidder

September 25, 2007

By Joe Grata
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Copyright 2007

State police have taken two men into custody on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Harrisburg and are interrogating them for taking photos of toll road facilities over the past several days.

"We are treating this as a possible terrorist activity," Turnpike Chief Executive Officer Joe Brimmeier said initially, but it turns out that the two men may have been simply carrying out a work assignment for a company looking into buying or leasing the toll road.

The toll road has been on a heightened security alert since Sunday, when two men were spotted taking photos of turnpike maintenance sheds in Somerset and Bedford counties. They entered through private gates and had possession of keys to at least one of the sheds, Mr. Brimmeier said.

Men were also spotted taking photos Monday at the Mahoning Valley Interchange on the Northeast Extension, but they were gone by the time police arrived.

State police said the men being detained and questioned carried Spanish passports and U.S. work visas. They claimed they had permission to enter turnpike property and take the photos.

Police confiscated their cameras and laptop computers.

The men said they were working for Cintra, a Spain-based global investment company that has teamed to invest in toll road leases in the United States. The firm has expressed interest in a long-term lease or purchase of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in response to requests for "letters of interest" made by Gov. Ed Rendell.

Mr. Brimmeier said no one either sought or received permission to enter turnpike property or to take photos of places that the toll facility regards as security sensitive, including five tunnels and numerous service plazas where large amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel are stored for retail sale to turnpike customers.

The men were picked up by state police around 3:30 p.m. today while taking pictures of the Yellow Breeches Creek bridge west of Harrisburg.

A radio operator on his way home after finishing his shift at 3 p.m. at the turnpike's administration building in Highspire spotted the two men acting suspiciously at the bridge and contacted state police.

"If we find they have keys to maintenance facilities and they were obtained illegally, we have a big problem," Mr. Brimmeier said. "Otherwise, things may work out for them. But I'm glad we have their cameras and laptops. God only knows who could get their hands on this type of information and what they could do with it."

© 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette : www.postgazette.com

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