The Baba Chronicles

For some people, African millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko was a dream come true. For others he was a nightmare.

She quickly packed, flew into Miami that night, managed a few hours of sleep, and was back at the airport the next day. Right away she knew she'd gotten involved with an odd enterprise. Upon arriving, she watched as Air Dabia employees loaded the jumbo jet's passenger compartment with boxes and containers: "Picture a 747 filled -- and I mean filled -- from the coach section back with cartons of china, linen, clothes, household items."

According to Ragsdale, her agreement with Mamadou Jaye called for her to be paid after she had seated the twenty passengers (including one of Sissoko's wives), the doors of the plane had been secured, and the crew had prepared for takeoff. But there was no money for her.

Jaye promised to pay after they landed in Gambia, but Ragsdale became suspicious and began snooping around the plane. She soon realized there were no fire extinguishers onboard -- and no life rafts or oxygen tanks. "The entire aircraft was stripped," she says. "When I asked about the condition of the plane, Mamadou Jaye just kept telling me that there was no FAA in Africa."

By the time the airliner touched down in Banjul, Ragsdale had decided to quit. "We were told they were going to fix the wing using speed tape and that we would be going to Zaire the next morning," she recalls. "There was no way I was ever getting onboard that aircraft again." (She later learned the plane had once been owned by United Airlines and that in 1989 its cargo door blew off over Hawaii, killing nine passengers.)

When she made her complaints known to Jaye and told him she was resigning, he grew incensed. Ragsdale says he called her a bitch and threatened to have her arrested: "He said that if I opened my mouth again I was going to jail.

"I cried all that night," she continues. "I was so sad and scared, I didn't know what was going to happen." Two Air Dabia pilots, both Americans who had been among the passengers from Miami to Gambia, had come to her aid as she argued with Jaye. The pilots, Richard Downs and Dan Polchinski, said they too were ready to desert Air Dabia, so the three of them decided to leave Gambia together.

The next day Air Dabia officials promised to provide them with tickets out of the country, but never issued them. The other airlines operating out of Banjul, such as Air Afrique, would not accept their credit cards. Neither Ragsdale nor the pilots had been paid, and none had sufficient cash for tickets. They were stranded.

Today Ragsdale suspects that the airline officials were hoping the trio would change their minds and return to work. At one point she was given the opportunity to speak by telephone (and through an interpreter) with Sissoko in Miami. He told her to relax and enjoy the free stay at her Banjul hotel; she and Downs and Polchinski would be paid the next day. The money, he added, would be wired from one of his Miami bank accounts. "It never came," she says. "He just kept us there. He knew we couldn't get out, that we were trapped."

Ragsdale complained to the American Embassy in Banjul, but what she heard in response only made her more upset. Complaints such as hers, she learned, were hardly unique: "An embassy official told me that Sissoko hires Americans all the time, rotates them through Africa, but never pays them and leaves them to find their own way home."

After a week Polchinski's wife, from her home in Orlando, arranged for three tickets to Brussels to be waiting for them at the Banjul airport. An embassy staffer escorted them there to ensure their prompt departure.

A U.S. Department of State official confirms Ragsdale's story and acknowledges it was not an isolated event. "On several occasions American citizen employees of Air Dabia have approached the embassy for assistance in situations in which they believed they had been threatened by airline management," according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "On those occasions we have taken the steps necessary to assist and protect them." One of those incidents, the official says, involved another female flight attendant, who claimed that Sissoko himself made several unwelcome advances and repeatedly told her she was going to become one of his wives. She managed to leave Gambia, the official recounts, though she was badly frightened.

Numerous other Americans have complained about not being paid by Air Dabia, according to the official, but in those cases there is little the state department can do. Among those people is Thomas "T.K." Sanders, one of Sissoko's personal pilots responsible for flying the millionaire's private jet. "I don't have anything against the man," Sanders says during a telephone interview from France. "He just doesn't pay his bills. He owes so many people so much money it's just ridiculous. He owes me $60,000. I haven't been paid in more than four months."

Three months ago Sanders and another of Sissoko's pilots were sent to Dinard, in northwestern France, to receive training on a new private jet Sissoko had recently purchased. But two weeks into their program, Sanders says, the classes were suspended because Sissoko had failed to make the necessary payments. "We've been here for 75 days waiting for him to pay the company the money so we can finish our training and get out," Sanders says, frustration rising in his voice. "We're stuck here without any money. He's got us in a hotel but we've got no way to get home. He keeps saying he's going to send some money over, but he never does."

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