Just after 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 15, 2010, in the Boston suburb Milton, Mass., a driver was headed down a dark residential street ... until he noticed something large blocking his path. Inching closer, the driver discovered that what was blocking the road was the severely mutilated body of a deceased young black male — a rare occurrence in this upscale neighborhood that abuts a national forest preserve.
Dialing 911, the driver reported the horrific sight to the operator, causing the Milton Police Department to come out in force to investigate. Police checked the body, looking for some cause of death, trying to find out what was behind the massive injuries the boy suffered, but they didn't happen upon any immediate answers. No ID. No wallet. No gunshot wounds. No stab wounds. The only clues investigators found were a crumpled hall pass in the back pocket of the boy's jeans and a smashed plastic card.
Although detectives noticed that cars passing through the area were stained with bits of body matter and blood, they were able to determine the death was not a case of hit-and-run. Perhaps he was killed in that Milton neighborhood — or maybe he was killed elsewhere and then dumped on the street.
What police didn't know on that November night was the body they'd found was that of Delvonte Tisdale, a 16-year-old student who lived nearly 900 miles away in Charlotte.
He'd moved to Charlotte from Greensboro in the summer of 2010 with his father Anthony Tisdale Sr. Less than 24 hours before his body was located, his father had reported him missing to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police. No one knew that Delvonte had somehow left home, traveled to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, slipped past airport security, allegedly stowed away in the wheel well of a US Airways Boeing 737 bound for Boston and apparently fell to his death.
The mystery surrounding his demise and the fact that he was able to stow away on an airplane undetected — in this post-9/11 world of supposed heightened security — has sent shock waves across the nation, impacting the Tisdale family, the national media, CMPD, the city of Charlotte, Charlotte Douglas International, Congress and Homeland Security.
What chain of events led to Delvonte leaving home — on his own or by force — and ending up stowed inside the 737? And what does this mean for airport security in Charlotte and America as a whole?
The search for answers about his tragic disappearance and death, we discovered, only leads to more questions.
Here's what is known: On Nov. 8, 2010 — a week before he went missing — Delvonte celebrated his 16th birthday. It was a low-key celebration, since he was new to the area and didn't have a lot of friends. According to attorney Christopher Chestnut (who was hired by the victim's father and mother, Baltimore resident Jonette Washington, after they couldn't get answers about their son's death), Delvonte hung out with his fellow ROTC cadets a lot. He was a quiet student who didn't cause any trouble and made good grades.
"He was planning on going into the Army," Chestnut said. "As far as we know, he was happy. He has no criminal history, and there was nothing to suggest that he was a disgruntled teen or having any issues."
CBS News' Crimesider blog reported that Delvonte and his father did yard work together on Nov. 14 and ate pizza for dinner with his family. The next morning, Chestnut said, as Anthony left the house for work, he wasn't able to locate Delvonte; but, he assumed that the boy had left early for school. That afternoon, Anthony called North Mecklenburg High and discovered that his son hadn't attended school that day. He then called police and filed a missing person's report. At 5:48 p.m., an officer came to the Tisdale's home and interviewed the family — that's when it was discovered Delvonte was last seen in Charlotte by his younger brother at about 1:30 a.m.
Detectives from Massachusetts came to Charlotte a day later with gruesome photos of Delvonte's mangled body for his father to identify.
Delvonte's death drew immediate national media attention; theories about why he left home ran rampant, and conflicting information arose from family members in North Carolina and Maryland.
While Chestnut said it's doubtful that Delvonte ran away because he and his father got along just fine, other relatives tell a different story. His brother, Anthony Tisdale Jr. — who also lives in Baltimore — told Crimesider that his brother hated living in Charlotte.
"My brother just wanted to come home," he said, adding the teen "just couldn't take it there."
So when Flight 1776 took off from Charlotte Douglas International Airport, had Delvonte hopped inside a plane he thought was flying to Baltimore to get away from a city that he hated? Did he know the risks of such an escape?
Aviation expert J. Joseph, owner of Charlotte-based Joseph Aviation Consulting, describes the inside of a plane's wheel well as having sufficient space for the teen to climb into. But once the landing gear retracted, it could've smashed him; that along with several other factors may have damaged his body.
"At the very best, it's risky," he said. "First of all, it is a very hostile environment, regardless of what the conditions are. The brakes are exceptionally hot — hundreds and hundreds of degrees as the aircraft taxies out. Once the wheels retract, that brake assembly would have been so hot. Then you're in an unpressurized environment with no oxygen in an airplane operating in the mid-30,000-foot range. Within a couple of seconds at that altitude, you become incapacitated. And then there are minus 30 to 40 degree temperatures at an altitude like that." (The broken plastic card found with Delvonte's body reportedly showed signs of exposure to extremely cold temperatures.)
Is that a risk Delvonte would've taken to get back to his mother in Baltimore?
According to his mother, as reported on Dec. 14 in the Boston Globe: "He was afraid of heights. He didn't even like going in a building that was high."
Chestnut added that Delvonte wouldn't have stowed away because his mother lives more than 35 minutes away from Baltimore Washington International Airport, and he just wasn't prepared for such a trip.
"He didn't have enough baggage. If you're going to run away, you're going to take outfits and a few favorite trinkets. He didn't have any of that. He didn't have his cell phone with him, and he didn't have money on him. He didn't have enough money to catch a cab or to even go to Baltimore. And he hadn't called in anyone in Baltimore to say that he was coming."
But in an interview with the Associated Press, Anthony Jr. said Delvonte's father "took away his cell phone. They were always arguing."
And another sibling told a similar story to the Globe on Nov. 21. According to the newspaper, a half-brother in Baltimore, Craig Tisdale, 18, said he thought Tisdale may have gotten in a car with two friends bound for Boston, hoping they would drop him off in Baltimore on their way north. But Craig's mother, Diane Turner, told the Globe that "we really don't know what happened" in the same report.
The Milton Police closed its investigation after Delvonte was identified, determining his death accidental. "You wouldn't believe it could happen in the year 2011. A 16-year-old kid, no money, no wallet, no ID — nothing," said Milton Police Chief Richard Wells. "He just gets on a commercial jetliner. If you've flown on a jet anywhere in the world post 9/11, you could understand why you wouldn't think that could happen. But clearly, as the investigation moved forward, one of the things that we discovered was that the window between the last time he was seen in Charlotte and found here in Milton was very small."
Meaning, Delvonte couldn't have traveled the nearly 900 miles between Charlotte and Boston by bus, train or automobile and arrived by 9 p.m. There was also airplane grease on his pants, and his handprint and fingerprints were found inside the left wheel well of the plane. And, when Milton Police traced the FAA flight patterns of the Boston-bound flight from Charlotte, it showed that the plane flew directly over the neighborhood where his body was found.
"Had it gone 20 feet either way, he would've landed in grass, and we would've known that night [he fell from a plane]," Wells said. "He would've landed in a front yard, either way. The body, at the rate of descent, would've embedded in the grass, and you would've know right away that the body came from the sky."
Though the case wrapped up in Massachusetts, putting together what happened during the last few days of Delvonte's life in Charlotte has been difficult for his family. Chestnut said access to Delvonte's friends has been tied up by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
"We think we can get a lot of questions answered if we talk to his friends. He was relatively new to Charlotte and he didn't have a whole lot of friends, but the ones he had, he hung out with a lot," he said. "From the way we understand it, we want to speak with the kids at school." CMS declined to speak to CL for this story.
Another source of contention for the family is the fact that after months of waiting, they've heard nothing from the airport.
"Obviously, US Air, Charlotte [Douglas] — you have some gaping holes in your security. And how is it three months later, you still don't have any answers?" Chestnut said. "If you don't have any answers, then you don't have any improvements. If you don't have improvements, that means it could happen again."
Joseph, who worked at Charlotte Douglas, said there is a weak link in Charlotte and other airports across America.
"If anybody displays a prominent badge or anything else — if you have a badge or a vest and you look like you belong — chances are no one is going to question you," said Joseph. "If you look like you're a part of the program, once you're inside the fence it is easy to maneuver around the ramp. That's the sad truth to the security side of this."
Additionally, there's no evidence, according the Transportation Safety Administration, that Delvonte purchased a boarding pass for a plane. And, Chestnut said, there has been no surveillance footage showing the teen entering the airport.
"We don't know how he got onto the plane. We don't know how long he'd been on the plane. We don't even know how he got onto the tarmac," said Chestnut.
The TSA is leading an investigation into the security breach. Massachusetts Congressman William Keating, who initially led the investigation into Delvonte's death as the district attorney in Boston, called out Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about Delvonte's death at a House Homeland Security Committee meeting on Feb. 9.
"If it wasn't this young man that just stowed himself for his own reasons, if that had been a person with more nefarious motivation, think of what would have happened with that ... commercial airliner, or any of the other airliners that were there at that time," he said.
In response, according to the Globe, Napolitano, said, "Clearly, if somebody — a 16-year-old — is able to circumvent those standards and requirements and get into the wheel well of a plane, there has been a breakdown."
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police also have an open investigation into the security breach. But Charlotte Douglas International Airport Aviation Director Jerry Orr won't speak publicly about the breach. Shortly after the incident, Orr told WBTV that there would be "no special review of airport security." Orr didn't return messages left by Creative Loafing.
Even when city officials asked questions about the breach, they didn't get answers.
City Councilman Patrick Cannon, who chairs the Community Safety Committee, said the city doesn't know much more than the rest of the public. "At one point, I was waiting on the forensics to come back so that I could be more informed about what had happened," he said. "In the process of waiting for the forensic report to be concluded, it appeared that there may be some legalities involved. As a result, I haven't been able to get that information."
While various investigations into the incident continue, they're moving slowly with few details forthcoming. And although a lawsuit hasn't been filed yet, Chestnut said the reason a suit is being considered is because "the family wants to see that it doesn't happen again. And, though they are not frequent flyers, they are concerned about safety on airplanes."
Moreover, there are no definitive answers about Delvonte's death.
"It's bad enough that Delvonte was on the plane, and what's frustrating and more concerning is that the airport can't tell us how he got on the plane," Chestnut said. "Initially Delvonte was being blamed for sneaking on the plane. Now, we're questioning that."