By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
On September 12, 2001, Fort Lauderdale businessman Bill Brown’s morning routine began like most others. After dropping his young daughter off at day care, the widower drove to work at his marine accessories store, The Nautical Niche.
What Brown says happened next was anything but ordinary. The parking lot of his store at 2301 S. Federal Highway was filled with federal agents and police.
“As soon as I arrived, they asked if we could go inside and talk,” said Brown. “They gave me a name and asked me who the person was. I wasn’t familiar with the name and I said, ‘Why do you ask?’ An agent said that he and several other men were the ones who flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon” the day before.
Confused, Brown replied that he knew nothing about the attacks. “Well, your phone number was the most prominent on his call list and it looks like you had a substantial relationship together,” an agent said. “We want to know his association with you.”
Agents from the FBI, CIA, U.S. Customs and Immigration were present that morning, but it was the FBI that took the lead, Brown said. They copied his sales records and later had Brown take a lie detector test in which he was asked only a couple of questions about his patriotism.
“I gave them complete access to our computer and anything I had,” Brown said. “We come to find out…they were customers of mine.”
Brown said it was determined that one or more hijackers had purchased between four and eight K-10 hydrospeeder submersibles in multiple transactions at a cost of $20,000 apiece. The now-retired Brown, 60, recalled that one or two of those high performance diver propulsion vehicles was shipped to Singapore, while another was sent to a location in the Northeast U.S. He recollects that shell companies were used in some transactions.
“They were sent all over,” said Brown, who told the South Florida Business Journal in 2002 that his store, which catered to the desires of super-rich yacht owners, had gross revenues of more than $6 million in 2000.
Brown, who Florida corporate records show sold his business in 2007, does not recall the shipping addresses, or the names of the recipients for those pre-9/11 transactions. Nor does he remember the name of the hijacker(s) who purchased them, either in person or via the internet.
A ‘significant cell’ broken
Brown does remember, however, that an FBI agent later told him the Singapore sale was traced back to its recipient and that “a significant cell” of terrorists was broken up as a result.
The FBI in Miami declined a detailed request for comment. Instead, a spokesman suggested that a reporter file a Freedom of Information request, a process that can take years.
The matter remained out of public view for 15 years until Brown came forward after seeing an advance newspaper article about Thursday’s 9/11 panel discussion at Nova Southeastern University hosted by the Florida Bulldog. He said investigators from the 9/11 Commission, or its predecessor, Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, never contacted him.
The Joint Inquiry’s co-chairman, former Florida U.S. Senator Bob Graham, said in an interview that he was unaware of the FBI’s 15-year-old investigation of the submersibles purchase by a 9/11 hijacker.
“This is potentially significant. Why were we not made aware of this? You’ll need to ask the FBI why they didn’t feel, as they apparently felt with information about what happened in Sarasota, that this wasn’t worthy of sending up the line.”
Graham referred to an FBI investigation of a Saudi family in Sarasota who moved abruptly out of their upscale home about two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal items.
Florida Bulldog, working with author Anthony Summers, disclosed the existence of that investigation in September 2011, and reported that agents found evidence – including gatehouse entry logs and photos of license plates – that Mohamed Atta and other hijackers had visited the residence of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji. Reports later released by the FBI said the family had “many connections” to persons associated with the terrorist attacks.
The FBI quickly identified the hijackers using flight manifests, information in recovered baggage and documents found where the hijacked jets crashed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Some names, like that of ringleader Mohamed Atta, appeared in news stories the next day.
What plans the al Qaeda hijackers or their leaders had for the submersibles is not known. However, in 2003 the Christian Science Monitor reported that “one of the biggest concerns” of U.S. officials at the time was that terrorists were targeting ports and ships. The newspaper cited a Department of Defense exercise “Impending Storm” that simulated several types of ship-borne attacks on U.S. cities.
al Qaeda and mini-subs
In 2013, CNN reported about a 17-page letter found at Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound that laid out a detailed al Qaeda strategy for attacking targets in the U.S. and Europe. The letter was written to bin Laden in March 2010 by senior al Qaeda planner Younis al-Mauretani, and among other things discussed using “mini-submarines” to plant explosives on undersea pipelines, CNN said.
Brown kept no business records after he sold The Nautical Niche, and his story is not documented in local public records. For example, Fort Lauderdale police have no record of a service call to The Nautical Niche on September 12, 2001. A department records official, however, said that back then calls to assist another agency were sometimes not documented.
Brown has talked privately about his experience over the years.
“He told me about the incident that happened to him back then,” said Broward Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly. “His dad worked in the Kennedy Administration.”
Donnelly was the prosecutor who tried and convicted Robert Stapf in September 2001 for the 1998 stabbing murder of Brown’s wife, Caron.
“I was on the witness stand in trial,” said Brown. “Someone came crashing in the courtroom’s back door screaming, ‘We’re under attack! Someone flew into the World Trade Center!”
Donnelly recalled that Judge Dan True Andrews quickly suspended court for the rest of the day. The next morning, the feds were waiting for Brown at The Nautical Niche.
Brown’s former bookkeeper and sales assistant, Adelle Savage of Delray Beach, said he told her what happened shortly after she began working at The Nautical Niche in 2002 or 2003.
‘I can attest to that’
“In the course of conversation…he told me about how when he arrived that morning all the cops and agents were there. They thought he was connected before they realized that he had no idea who he was selling to,” said Savage. “I can attest to that.”
Savage also said that on several occasions Miami FBI agents David Grazer and George Nau came to the store to see Brown. Brown identified the same agents in a separate interview, saying he “maintained a relationship with the FBI handlers who kept on eye on me.”
“Obviously, my life was at risk for cooperating with the feds. We didn’t know if some of these people were still down here or what,” Brown said.
Brown described The Nautical Niche, which displayed a yellow submarine in its front window, as a kind of Sharper Image for yacht owners. The Business Journal’s 2002 story reported The Travel Channel had “included The Nautical Niche on its list of places for a show called, ‘How to Spend a Million.’ ”
Brown said his clientele were often billionaires, like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and included various Middle Eastern royalty, including members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud.
The Nautical Niche’s sale of the submersibles that interested federal agents, however, was different from the company’s other large transactions because the purchasers paid cash. “They would go to my bank and make counter deposits,” said Brown. The amounts deposited were about $5,000, low enough to avoid federal reporting requirements.
At the time of the sales, Brown didn’t question the transactions. “In the yachting business there’s a lot of anonymity. You don’t ask questions. People like their privacy.”