According to a witness, Alpizar suddenly ran off of American Airlines Flight 924, which had stopped off in Miami en route from Medellin, Colombia, to Orlando. He was pursued by two air marshals who were aboard the flight while his wife, Anne Buechner, tried to explain that Alpizar was ill and had not taken his medication. "When the incident began and he uttered something to the effect that he had a bomb, the federal air marshals came out of cover," Jim Bauer, special agent in charge of the Miami field office of the Federal Air Marshal Service, told TIME. "They identified themselves and ordered him to cease and desist." Some passengers deny that Alpizar said he had a bomb.
The officers followed Alpizar and killed him when he disobeyed orders to lie down and they believed him to be reaching into his bag. "The shooting occurred in the immediate vicinity of the front door of the aircraft, on the aircraft," Bauer says. "I don't think he had taken a seat." After the incident airport authorities inspected luggage on the plane and blew up at least two bags. No bomb was found.
Bauer says that "no information would indicate" Alpizar had any terrorist connections. But authorities plan to explore that possibility as the post-shooting investigation goes forward. "There will be two parallel investigations," he says. "First, the shooting will be investigated by Miami-Dade homicide investigators. Second, the FBI and federal air marshals are investigating whether this has any national security concern. Right now there's nothing to indicate any national security concern."
The news stunned friends and family members. Alpizar's mother in-law-declined comment when reached at his home in Maitland, Florida. Luis Berrios, who had purchased a home from the Alpizars in Orlando in 1998, said he remained friends with him for several years after the sale. "He was a beautiful person," Berrios says. "Him and his wife. They came by every so often. I think he was from Costa Rica because that's where he used to like to go. She's American. I think he lived here most of the time. His English wasn't bad."
Berrios says Rigoberto was a manager at a retail paint store and kept a tidy house. "Every time I came by he was always watering his lawn in the back and the trees. He had brought two specific trees from Costa Rica. When I bought the house, it looked like it had just been built. That's how immaculate it was."
Last year, TIME reporter Sally B. Donnelly was the first journalist allowed to train with air marshal recruits. Read her story here.