With his rented Ford Taurus idling in a parking lot, Jimmy Walter springs from the driver's seat, hustles back to pop the trunk and pulls out a duffle bag. He wrestles free an army-green jumpsuit and then quickly pulls it over his suit pants, white shirt, tie and dress shoes. He grabs a flight helmet, fixes it on his head, looks up and smiles.
With no phone booth in sight, Walter has transformed himself into Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief, his Bush-whacking alter ego. The get-up is festooned with patches and stitchings: Chicken-Hawk Guard, First Chicken-Hawk Wing. Across the back, six-inch letters spell AWOL.
Walter, the 58-year-old son of Tampa's late home-building tycoon Jim Walter, had the suit made during the run-up to the Iraq war. He's worn it at protest rallies (and one year at Gasparilla). Occasionally, he dons it when leading a seminar alleging that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by a cabal of higher-ups in the U.S. government. Or, sometimes he just morphs into Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief for kicks.
There are those who would suggest that this is no way for Jim Walter's son to act. Further, there are some who might look askance at Jimmy spending millions on his three-year campaign to show that the official story of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is a sham.
To the notion that he's squandering his inheritance on fringe craziness, Jimmy Walter replies, "All patriots are looked upon as fools by many of those around them because they give up their lives and property. I may be a fool, but I'm proud to be a patriot."
Walter has poured an estimated $5.5 million into his crusade. Initially, the money paid for a series of full-page ads in major publications such as the New York Times, Newsweek and Reader's Digest, as well as full pages in the Weekly Planet in 2003 and 2004. He followed this campaign with an array of TV spots that have run mostly on cable.
Walter has produced a documentary, Confronting the Evidence: A Call to Reopen the September 11th Investigation, and distributed more than 300,000 DVD copies for free.
His website, www.reopen911.org, is one of the more prominent in what is often called the 9/11 Truth movement. On the home page, Walter offers $1 million to anyone who can prove explosives were not used in the attacks. (He says that thus far he's had no takers.)
Additionally, Walter has conducted a series of symposiums, featuring prominent 9/11 conspiracy theorists, in cities such as New York, Amsterdam, Vienna and London. Last week, on Pearl Harbor day, he brought his conspiracy road show to his hometown. "The New Pearl Harbor: Confronting the Evidence" was held on Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Tampa Theatre.
Over a well-paced two-and-a-half hours in front of around 300 True Believers, Walter played ringmaster on Wednesday for a seminar that featured plenty of video on the theater's big screen and six panelists whose presentations ranged from fiery rhetoric to nerd-speak. They laid out compelling claims that 9/11 was an inside job (for a primer on the various conspiracy theories, see the sidebar), and repeatedly bashed the mainstream media for ignoring the issue.
The event's highlight came courtesy of a hero, William Rodriguez, a janitor in the North Tower who saved hundreds of people by freeing them with his master key, and who barely escaped the building's collapse by jumping under a fire truck. He held the crowd spellbound with a detailed first-person narrative of his experiences that morning. Rodriguez also said he heard explosions in the basement and in other parts of the building before it fell, bolstering the most prominent conspiracy theory: It was preset explosions, not jets or fire, that brought down the WTC buildings.
Much to his credit, this was not the Jimmy Walter Ego Hour. While entertaining and at times boisterous, he largely played the deferential master of ceremonies.
Although 9/11 revisionists say that Walter is the only guy out there backing the cause with major dollars, he's more than just a bankroller. The millionaire can be found most days stationed in front of his laptop, working e-mail, researching 9/11, developing new initiatives and generally staying the course.
The month before coming to Tampa, Walter stayed with Rodriguez in his Jersey City apartment, sleeping on an inflatable bed propped on milk crates. "Every morning, he would go with a placard and picket the New York Times building," Rodriguez says, referring to Walter's protesting what he sees as the newspaper's suppression of information about 9/11. "He has put himself out there to try to get to the truth."
Former Tampa mayor Dick Greco, a close friend of Jim Walter Sr., says of Jimmy, "I've always known him to march to his own drummer. His dad believed in that. Jimmy couldn't care less [if people disapprove]."
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