Looking back a decade, key players in terrorism arrest in Port Angeles say they were just doing their jobs

Four Customs officers working the international ferry crossing in Port Angeles received exceptional service medals for apprehending terrorist Ahmed Ressam in the city's downtown a decade ago. This medal belongs to Customs Inspector Mark Johnson. -- Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series marking the 10th anniversary of the arrest of terrorist Ahmed Ressam in Port Angeles.

PORT ANGELES — The media flocked to cover the story of U.S. Customs inspectors in Port Angeles collaring terrorist Ahmed Ressam 10 years ago as he disembarked the MV Coho ferry 11 days before Christmas.

Around 6 p.m. Dec. 14, 1999, Ressam fled on foot through downtown Port Angeles after customs inspectors searching the trunk of his car found what turned out to be powerful explosives he had planned to detonate at Los Angeles International Airport.

He was quickly captured.

“What we didn’t realize was all the attention that would focus on us,” said former Inspector Diana Dean, whose story made it into the pages of Reader’s Digest and onto countless news programs.

“There was so much, I wish I would have kept a journal. We just did not realize how much attention we would get. We were probably interviewed by everybody.”

Over the last several weeks, the Peninsula Daily News interviewed all five Customs inspectors on duty that holiday season night.

Here are their stories:

Diana Dean

After the death of Dean’s husband, Tony, in 2003, the inspector who first noticed that Ressam was acting oddly moved to a town of 25,000 in North Dakota, her home state.

She worked as a Customs inspector at the Portal border station, which is much larger than Port Angeles’, before retiring in 2004.

“We were just the instruments who happened to be there that night,” she said of the capture a decade ago.

“I can bring [the memory] back like it was yesterday, but I don’t dwell on it or think about it too much.”

Not many in North Dakota know of her place in history, said Dean, who declined to give her age.

She spends her time on her 10-acre spread, tending her six horses, and tries to visit friends in Port Angeles about once a year.

Dean’s three daughters are now 26, 27 and 28.

Her 27-year-old, Caitlin, an Army reservist in the 467th Medical Detachment, is an occupational therapist who counsels troubled soldiers.

Caitlin stopped off at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 4, before shipping out to Afghanistan on Dec. 4.

But On Nov. 5, Caitlin had her own brush with tragic history.

She had just walked out of a medical exam room after being told to come back later when Maj. Malik Nadal Hassan, an Army psychiatrist, opened fire in the exam room, leaving nearly 10 members of Caitlin’s 40-person unit dead or seriously injured.

“A lot of the people who had been shot were running to where she was,” Dean said.

“Terrorists are going to go away,” she added.

“Like Hassan, now, we are growing our own. All of us have to be vigilant, whether you’re in law enforcement or a civilian on the street. We need to be aware of our surroundings and our neighbors.”

Mike Chapman

Now a Clallam County commissioner, Chapman, 46, echoed his former colleagues in saying they were all just doing their jobs.

“It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out we should stop him and probably talk to him some more,” Chapman said.

“More credit and accolades came our way than really was deserved, However, we did good work.”

Chapman, a high-rise window washer in college and a former Mill Creek policeman who was working part time for the Customs Service, chased Ressam through downtown Port Angeles, eventually tackling him and throwing him to the ground.

His actions earned him the nickname “The Tackler” from the late Washington Sen. Slade Gorton.

“Ressam did not have a gun, that’s what I was thankful for,” Chapman’s wife, Bobbi, said.

Five months later, Chapman would announce his intention to run for commissioner, a job he has held ever since.

He’d already been thinking about running for public office, he said — and the Ressam incident had nothing to do with his decision.

But when Chapman was courted by the county Republican Party — he’s now an independent — there were two schools of thought on the direction of his campaign: play on his status as a well-known candidate or stay away from the Ressam issue altogether.

“I chose to take the route of the unknown and worked my butt off,” Chapman said, adding he knocked on 3,000 to 4,000 doors introducing himself to Port Angeles voters.

The Chapmans’ two boys are now 10 and 12, more cognizant of election cycles than the anniversary of their father flinging to the ground a terrorist hellbent on destruction, Chapman said.

“It seems like a long time ago to carry a gun and wear a uniform.”

Mark Johnson

Coho ferry passengers often ask the remaining member of the team of Customs inspectors who apprehended Ressam if this is the place where “that guy” — they often don’t remember his name — was caught.

“I say, ‘It is,’ and let them go on,” said Johnson, 45.

“There’s no sense in talking about it, but I acknowledge it,” continued Johnson, who calls Dec. 14 his “10-year anniversary of reluctance.”

Johnson was the inspector holding Ressam by the shoulder when the terrorist slipped out of the coat and ran. Chapman, with Johnson close behind, pursued Ressam. Chapman tackled him, and Johnson immobilized him with a knee on his head.

Johnson vigorously denies he’s a hero.

“I’m the one who let him go,” he said. “It doesn’t make me feel bad, but don’t call me a hero. I’m not a hero. I was just doing my job, and I’m just as fallible as the next guy.”

Johnson worked at the United States-Mexico border before coming to far quieter Port Angeles 12 years ago.

He still keeps his exceptional service medal in a dark closet in the Customs office of the Richard B. Anderson federal building out of sight and dangling from a hanger. And he rarely wears the award pin that he could attach to his uniform.

In the last 10 years, Johnson has grown more mature, he said.

Maybe it was watching his daughter growing up, he said, speaking with a softness that belies his more than 240-pound frame.

Maybe it was thinking about one’s place in an organization, he said, and the importance of setting an example to others when you happen to be at the right place at the right time, and things turn out OK.

“You have to set aside your desires so that the overall mission of an agency can be fulfilled,” he said.

“That is first and foremost. It was coming to grips with the fact this world is bigger than I am.”

A devout Christian, like several other members of the inspector crew that night, Johnson said he prayed for Ressam after Ressam was arrested.

“I’m always concerned with a person’s soul, but there should also be consequences for your actions,” he said.

“Justice was served.”

Dan Clem

The retired Clallam County deputy prosecutor was working part time as a Customs inspector when he unscrewed the spare-tire wheel well of Ressam’s car and discovered a cache of explosives that he thought at first were drugs.

He flagged down a vehicle and hopped in, telling the driver, “I think we got a big doper.”

Clem saw Chapman looking under a pickup, where Ressam was hiding, but didn’t realize Chapman was looking at Ressam, so he headed to the Lincoln Street Safeway, thinking Ressam might try to get lost in the crowd at the store.

“All I was doing is what I was supposed to do,” he said.

About a year after the Ressam incident, Clem became an assistant U.S. attorney in Tulsa, Okla.; he was there for two years before becoming a part-time assistant district attorney for Payne and Logan counties, also in Oklahoma.

Clem still frequently e-mails Johnson but doesn’t have much compassion for Ressam, calling him “a lying sack of crap” and “a despicable person.”

Steve Campbell

Now a part-time Superior Court bailiff for Clallam County, Campbell, 64, retired from Customs in 2003.

“We were definitely in the limelight there for it seemed like months and months and months,” he said.

Campbell was the shift supervisor that night, but was doing paperwork in the Customs office when Ressam bolted.

Campbell hopped in his van and chased Ressam, but Ressam was already in custody by the time Campbell arrived.

“By the time I got to the intersection, it was all over,” he said. “I’m way over it.”

He’s “more or less” the same person he was 10 years ago, Campbell said.

“I’m a Christian, and I have a lot of faith in what I’m doing,” he said. “I have to believe God was watching over us that night, considering what we had in our hands.”

He retired after the agency was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security.

“There was a new overall system, new uniforms, new this and that,” he said. “It was a little more than I wanted to deal with. A lot of inspectors retired at that time.

Carol Loth

When Ressam reached the intersection of First and Lincoln, Loth, 63, who was manager of the Safeway video store at the time but is now retired, was on her way to dinner with her husband, Ray, 69.

They had stopped at the red light at First and Lincoln streets, the city’s busiest intersection, and watched as Chapman chased Ressam on First Street.

“We were just thinking they were screwing around, that it was nothing,” said Loth, a Port Angeles native.

But when Ressam reached the intersection, he put his hand on her car hood, looked inside, and grabbed the handle of the door, which wasn’t locked.

Loth’s husband told her to run that red light.

Ressam spun around, and Chapman, about 6 inches taller than Ressam, tackled him.

“It was really nothing to us at the time,” Loth recalled. “It was just like, hunh, that was weird.”

At first she thought Ressam was trying to steal her car.

“The FBI said he didn’t want your car, he wanted hostages.

Then came the endless media interviews, she recalled.

These days, she’s so tired of being asked about the incident that she’s thrown away the newspaper stories.

“It got old real fast,” she said. “It wasn’t a good memory.”

________

Staff writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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