Before I ended my phone conversation with Debbie Cardarelli, I promised to buy her an apology dinner on behalf of the city if she ever returns to Philadelphia.
"No offense," she said, "but I never want to set foot in your town again."
After what we put her through on March 24, 2017, I don't blame her.
That day, Debbie and her husband Rick were flying back to Rochester, N.Y., from Miami following their vacation. After a layover at Philadelphia International Airport, they began boarding American Airlines Flight 4081 for the 75-minute ride home.
The crowded jet couldn't accommodate everyone's carry-ons, so as Rick entered the plane, he handed his bag to a ramp agent named Tawanda Ward for placement in the cargo hold below.
Rick took three steps when he remembered that his eyedrops were in the bag. He'd had a corneal transplant in 1980 and needed the drops with him.
Ward, citing security policy, repeatedly refused to let Rick open the bag, which was still in plain view, says Debbie. So he went back to the Gate F3 waiting area for help.
Managers intervened, Rick got his drops and the couple took their seats. Through the window, Debbie saw Ward sitting on a baggage trailer on the tarmac, visibly upset. She even threw a set of airplane chocks.
Two Philly cops then came down the aisle and asked Rick to come with them. They wouldn't say why, but Debbie — who followed Rick — presumed it was about Ward's behavior.
"I thought, 'That woman must be in big trouble!' " Debbie recalls.
Unbeknownst to the Cardarellis, Ward claimed that Rick made a bomb threat when she refused his request. In her report to police, she alleged that Rick told her, "If I don't get my bag back, it's going to blow up!"
As a result, all passengers were forced to deplane, and bomb-detecting dogs were brought in to give everything a sniff. Nothing was found. Two-and-a-half hours later, the plane finally departed for Rochester — without the Cardarellis on it.
By then, Rick had been led away by Philadelphia police, who wouldn't tell either him or Debbie where he was being taken or why. It was hours before a hysterical Debbie learned that Rick was in a Police District holding cell at 55th and Pine. He was being charged with disorderly conduct, threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction and making terroristic threats about a bomb.
Says Debbie, "I was like, a bomb? What are you talking about?"
Rick was released the next day – his 58th birthday – once Debbie posted 20 percent of his $25,000 bail. After seven months of delays, his case went to a bench trial last October, where Common Pleas Judge Vincent Melchiorre, finding Ward not credible, declared Rick not guilty. Debbie has since filed a civil suit against American Airlines (which has declined comment) and others on behalf of her husband, who died of cancer in January.
"It breaks my heart that his last birthday on the face of this earth was spent in jail," Debbie says.
The Cardarelli case is disturbingly similar to the 2013 saga of Roger Vanderklok, a local architect who asked to file a complaint after being treated unprofessionally by a TSA agent at Philadelphia International Airport.
Instead, the agent summoned police, alleging that Vanderklok had threatened the placement of a bomb. On the agent's word alone, Vanderklok was held for 20 hours and then arrested on terrorism charges. At trial, he was found not guilty.
And in 2006, a business consultant named Nadine Pellegrino was arrested here and charged with assault after she, too, clashed with TSA agents.
She was found not guilty and filed a suit against the TSA. The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled against her, saying the TSA, as a federal agency, has sovereign immunity from her complaint.
These cases reek of retaliation against travelers who rub airport workers the wrong way.
What I don't get, though, is why the Philadelphia Police and the DA's office – who make the arrest and approve the charges – appear to accept the allegations wholesale. In the Cardarelli and Vanderklok cases, the men were not even interviewed by law enforcement before being charged. If they had been, things might've unfolded differently.
"When most of these allegations occur, they usually result in a passing inconvenience" for the accused person, says global airport-safety expert Jeff Price, author of Practical Aviation Security. "The police find out what the truth is and then the person is on the next flight out. It's rare that something like [the Cardarelli] case ends in an arrest."
So is this a Philly thing? Police spokesperson Sekou Kinebrew says the department doesn't track the number of airport arrests related to bomb-threat allegations.
But our antennae should be twitching on this. Because these cases deny due process to the accused, which should include the basic act of asking them, "What happened?"
"Police do this every day on the street. They ask questions and exercise discretion – we rely on that," says attorney Thomas Malone, who defended Vanderklok. "That shouldn't change just because we're in an airport."
At least the Cardarellis had the financial means to make a stink. Indeed, I only heard about his case because the lawyer handling the civil lawsuit, Glenn Manochi, reached out to me.
What about travelers who don't have similar resources? If you're one of them, and have had a similar experience, contact me at email@example.com or 215-854-2217.