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"It began in March of 2002. I was flying from LaGuardia to Boston. My name came up on the computer, and suddenly the ticket agent asked for my ID back."
Johnnie Lockett Thomas doesn't look like the kind of person who'd get snared in an electronic net designed to catch terrorists. She's in her early 70s, the widow of a postal executive. She's elegant in gray slacks and silk blouse.
Mrs. Thomas traveled often to visit her children and grandchildren. On that day in 2002, she was puzzled by the ticket agent's reaction.
"He called for security," says Thomas, "and the security person came in a uniform with her hand on her weapon. And the ticket agent was alarmed enough to say, 'No, no, no, no! Mrs. Thomas hasn't done anything! Mrs. Thomas hasn't done anything!'"
Mrs. Thomas was delayed and missed her flight, but eventually was allowed to fly. A few days later she went to Boston's Logan Airport to return home to Montana. Again, a ticket agent stopped her.
"And she said, 'I'm not going to embarrass you by taking you away into the back room; I will simply take your ID and go and see what we can do about this.' ... And I finally asked why. And she said, 'Your name is on the master terrorist list.'"
Actually, a man who'd used a name roughly similar to Thomas' was on the government No-Fly list. "John Thomas Christopher" was the alias of a man charged with murdering his wife and children in Oregon. To computers, the name Johnnie Lockett Thomas was a match, despite noticeable differences between the two people.
"I think he was 27 years old, Caucasian, six feet tall, blue eyes, blonde hair - reddish blond hair," says Thomas. "And, he was already in custody."
Airports had No-Fly lists before 9/11, but after that day, government agencies added new names by the thousands. The number of people mistakenly stopped at airports has exploded. Those held up include many with Muslim-sounding names, and others with common names like John Thomas and David Nelson.
Johnnie Lockett Thomas now travels with a big three-ring binder containing, among other documents, her birth certificate and a letter from the FBI saying it's OK to let her fly.
"I have reason to be afraid," says Thomas. "We have a tendency to make lists, and it's getting worse and worse and worse, and somehow, when we don't know anything else to do, you make lists."
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