'Stupid joke' shuts down Florida's I-75

| 9/16/2002

Florida officials shut down a 20-mile stretch of Alligator Alley (I-75) near the Gulf Coast early Friday after what they believed was a possible terrorist threat. Federal sources later said those involved likely were playing a "stupid joke" on a restaurant patron who gave them a suspicious look.

The Florida Highway Patrol shut down the highway from a toll booth east of Naples to State Road 29 shortly after 1 a.m., when three men in two cars were detained after one ran an interstate toll booth. Bomb-sniffing dogs alerted authorities to material in both vehicles.

The highway was closed for traffic all day Friday as explosives investigators searched for any kinds of devices in the two cars. Those searches turned up nothing as of Friday afternoon.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation issued an advisory for two cars Thursday after a woman eating at a Shoney's restaurant in Calhoun, GA, told police she overheard three men of Middle Eastern descent making "alarming" comments Wednesday night. The woman reportedly gave a detailed description of the vehicles, including one of the vehicles license tag numbers.

According to AP, a law enforcement official in Washington, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said that authorities had not found a terrorist connection and that the three men appeared to be medical students traveling from Illinois to a medical conference in Miami. All three men - a Lebanese, a Jordanian and an Iranian - reportedly are in the country legally.