It's a Monday night at Anthony's on the Boulevard. ("Best in Cape Coral 2011!'' the menu proclaims.) Rudi Dekkers' book-launch party isn't supposed to start until 7 p.m. but Dekkers is flat broke and in a hurry to sell his new autobiography, Guilty by Association.
So Dekkers leaps from his seat at 6:40 p.m. and faces his audience, still picking at their broiled scallops and baked potatoes.
"I get goose bumps every time I speak about it,'' he begins in his thick Dutch accent, recalling that day, Sept. 12, 2001, when a pair of FBI agents showed up at his Venice flight school.
" 'Mr. Dekkers, we're here for the files on two people from your school who flew into the buildings.' The moment when I heard I was involved in 9/11, I had an outside-body experience. I swear I was there looking down on my body, thinking now I am involved in the biggest disaster that ever happened in the United States. I had no clue what the next 10 years is going to bring.''
Dekkers' school trained Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, pilots of the two jets that brought down the World Trade Center and killed nearly 3,000 people. In the following days and weeks, Dekkers was all over television, saying he had no idea the men were terrorists even though they were from the Middle East and Atta was a cold, rude jerk who looked like "a dead man walking.''
There were also thousands of calls and e-mails, some from Americans who threatened to kill Dekkers, a foreigner himself. And although he said he barely knew either pilot, there were sensationalist Internet claims that he was friends with Atta and even went with him to a strip club shortly before 9/11.
Then the attention faded. Dekkers moved on with his life, which included writing a book to "set the record straight'' and make back part of the $12 million he says he lost because of the terror attacks. Which he is why he is here this night, fielding questions that show that a lot of people still don't entirely believe him or the official account of what happed on 9/11.
"Where did those stories originate that they were never taught to land?'' This is asked in a semi-accusing tone, by a man in a white T-shirt who appears to have had one too many beers.
Dekkers doesn't answer directly. Instead he says this: "We were preparing students for certain licenses. We do not issue licenses. If we are only steering right and left with them, do you think the FAA guys will give them a license?''
And, he says, Atta and al-Shehhi bought a software program called Microsoft Flight Simulator that helped show them how to fly big Boeing jets.
"Bill Gates is guilty on this because he wrote the plans for a flight simulator. See where I'm going with this — guilty by association.''
• • •
Now 55, Dekkers is trim and affable, with a penchant for slightly off-color jokes. In his book, he also portrays himself as a smart, outside-the-box thinker whose problems — and there have been many, even before 9/11 — are largely the fault of others.
He grew up in a rickety houseboat in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with what he describes as an authoritarian father and a hard-drinking mother. On his own at an early age, he shined shoes, drove a taxi, served in the army, sold drill bits and cleaning supplies. He finally hit it big as a home builder.
"Business was good,'' Dekkers writes, so he took up flying. He came to Florida to buy a Piper Seneca and decided to move his family to Naples.
"At 35, I felt that I had reached the limit of what I could accomplish in the Netherlands. I had proven myself as a builder and developer.''
Dekkers' book glosses over or doesn't mention some less savory aspects of his history in Holland. A Dutch soccer club said he reneged on a pledge to sponsor an event, leaving it on the hook for thousands of dollars. A computer company he started went bankrupt. Another venture led to a tax fraud conviction, later overturned on appeal.
In Florida, some who had dealings with Dekkers found him pushy and arrogant, a man who didn't always play by the rules.
"I'm not saying he would sell his soul, but he is very aggressive,'' Robert Larson, then director of operations at the Naples Airport Authority, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2004.
Dekkers ran a facility that leased and maintained planes. He was so late on his bills that at one point the airport refused to sell him aviation fuel even if he paid in cash. In 1999, in one of his many run-ins with the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA cited him for operating an aircraft in an unsafe manner and suspended his pilot's license for 45 days, a severe penalty.
It was in Naples that Dekkers met a multimillionaire who loaned him money to buy Huffman Aviation, a flight school 100 miles up the road in Venice. In July 2000, two foreigners walked through the door. Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi said they wanted to get their commercial licenses so they could fly for airlines back home in the Middle East.
Dekkers was thrilled to see them.
Summer in Florida "was always our slow season,'' he writes. "To pick up two extra students in July was a bonus. Since it takes about a half year for student to get a license, they would be leaving exactly as our busy season began, dumping an additional $40,000 into my business. I put on my winning smile and treated them to my best sales pitch.''
Atta, a cold fish, and al-Shehhi, more gregarious, already had flunked out of a Sarasota flight school, where an instructor complained that they were "aggressive, rude and sometimes even fought with him'' to take controls during training flights, according to the 9/11 Commission report. Dekkers' book says only that the two were unhappy with the Sarasota school and liked that he offered to arrange housing for them.
At Huffman Aviation, Atta and al-Shehhi were also trouble at first — "horribly obnoxious to all of our women employees,'' Dekkers writes, and "in the plane, they just mess(ed) around.'' But he decided to give them a second chance, and they seemed to straighten out.
In late 2000, both men got their licenses. There was a bizarre incident that Christmas Eve. They rented a Piper Warrior from Huffman, flew to South Florida and abandoned the plane on a taxiway at Miami International Airport when Atta flooded the engine while trying to start it.
Once they were back in Venice, Dekkers chewed them out.
"I told them that I never wanted to see them on our field again,'' he writes. "I didn't need the business of people who would treat my planes and the reputation of my flight school with such utter contempt. As usual, Atta looked furious and Shehhi remained polite.''
Dekkers said he heard nothing more about them until Sept. 12, 2001. And it was not until the following March that he opened his mail to find student visas for the now dead pilots — seven months after Dekkers had sent in their applications.
• • •
At Anthony's on the Boulevard, diners have finished their meals and more hands shoot up when Dekkers asks for questions. Someone wants to know if his book is indeed enough to set the record straight.
"The Naples Daily News today, I'm on the front page. "My publisher said, 'Did you see the reaction from people — how dare you make money from a book?' Someone says, 'You owe me $38,000 for an engine.' That's the Internet these days.''
Since 9/11, Dekkers' financial troubles have escalated. Some were caused by fallout from the hijackings. Huffman Aviation, suddenly notorious as a terrorist training school, lost so much business Dekkers had to sell it.
Then he got caught in another of the decade's big stories, the real estate bust.
After a short-lived venture selling mobile phones, Dekkers moved to Cape Coral and went into the swimming pool business. That did well, he says, until grossly overpriced Cape Coral became ground zero of the foreclosure crisis. He didn't save enough, especially after state regulators fined him $2,500 for falsely passing himself off as a licensed pool contractor. (He has yet to pay the fine.)
Three years ago, Dekkers and his fourth wife, a Cuban-American he met on the Internet, stopped making payments on their 6,500-square-foot home in a gated community called La Vida. The bank has yet to foreclose.
"What luck!'' Dekkers says. "I could not afford now to live under a bridge.''
He has other problems. He owes the IRS more than $50,000. Three decades after he first entered the country, he still doesn't have U.S. citizenship or even a green card. He thinks the immigration service is messing with him because it was embarrassed by the mixup over Atta and al-Shehhi's visa applications.
Dekkers is also angry at the FAA. He had to surrender his commercial pilot's license to resolve a lawsuit in which the FAA accused him of operating illegal charter flights.
Before 9/11, "I did not fear anything from government. Later I found out government agencies like scapegoats.''
As Dekkers winds up his talk, he gets a hearty round of applause. A waitress and several other people advance toward a table stacked high with copies of Guilty by Association.
"To be honest, I was a little skeptical early on, but getting to know the guy I think he got a bad rap because of everything that happened,'' says Danny Mitchell, who met Dekkers several years ago while installing screens around Dekkers' pools. Mitchell buys six books — "for support.''
The response to Guilty by Association has been fairly good. It briefly hit the top 50 in Holland and already has sold about 25,000 copies in the United States, Dekkers says. For every copy, he makes $5. But he did not get an advance and he has to pay for his book tour, which includes stops in Sacramento, Minneapolis and, as close as possible to the 9/11 anniversary, New York City.
Dekkers hopes to earn enough to try something new, perhaps motivational speaking ("I love it and as you saw, people like me") or maybe buying LED lightbulbs from China and selling them cut-rate in this country.
"I have so many ideas to start a business. All my life I think outside the box. That's how I make money.''
Anthony's is clearing out fast, but a few more people approach. Dekkers autographs the books with a flourish, then slips a few $20 bills into his pocket.
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.