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After 43 days in federal prison, West African millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko this past Friday returned to his Brickell Key condominium to begin serving four months of house arrest. Sissoko will be confined to his posh, bayview pad through February -- unless his attorneys are successful this week in persuading a federal judge to allow him to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest in Gambia, his base of operations in Africa.
Sissoko, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to offering an illegal gratuity to a U.S. Customs agent, became a folk hero in Miami as a result of his calculated acts of charity and his outlandish spending habits. He was also the subject of a September New Times cover story, "The Baba Chronicles," which detailed the excessive efforts of his attorneys to pressure the Justice Department to release him.
The article also revealed another side of "Baba" Sissoko: At the same time he was cultivating an image of generosity in South Florida, those Americans who worked overseas for his airline company were complaining that they hadn't been paid in months. "When I read your story, I was so happy that someone finally exposed him," remarks Bill Hennessey, who worked as a flight attendant for Sissoko's Air Dabia and has his own horror stories to tell: "They treated us like shit, risked our lives, had us thrown in jail, stole our money, and then sent us back to the United States with nothing.
"When I was first hired by Air Dabia," he adds, "they said this was going to be the most amazing experience of our lives. Well, I guess it was."
Crowds of people gathered at the airport in Banjul, Gambia, last April when Hennessey and a group of American pilots and flight attendants arrived from Miami aboard a Boeing 747 Sissoko had recently purchased. "We had a hero's welcome," Hennessey recalls. "Everyone was so happy to see the 747." For his part, the 27-year-old Hennessey was simply grateful the plane had landed safely. During the flight over the Atlantic, a 30-foot-long section of the wing had torn off the plane. "It was one of many red flags I should have paid more attention to," Hennessey says.
The first warning, he says, came when Sissoko's company reneged on its promise to pay the crew members in advance. Hennessey and the others had been hired by an Air Dabia executive named Mamadou Jaye. His promised pay: $2500 for 30 days' work. In addition, he claims, he was supposed to receive $50 per diem. "We were supposed to get the money when the doors to the plane closed and we began taxiing," he recounts. "But we didn't."
Upon arriving in Banjul, Hennessey and the other Americans were taken from the airport to a nearby hotel, where they stayed for seven days while the plane was repaired. Not everyone, however, was willing to wait. Flight attendant Sally Ragsdale and two American pilots had made up their minds by the time they landed in Banjul to quit Air Dabia. When Ragsdale announced her intention to leave, Hennessey says, Mamadou Jaye became highly agitated and threatened to have her thrown in jail. "He did that right in front of all of us," Hennessey recalls. "I couldn't believe it. Then a couple of days later Sally and the two pilots were gone. I didn't know what happened to them. I thought they might be in jail."
In fact, with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Banjul, Ragsdale and the pilots were whisked out of Gambia before they could say goodbye to anyone. "Right after they all disappeared," Hennessey adds, "Mamadou Jaye held a meeting with the rest of us and told us that anyone who brought up their names would be sorry. So none of us said a word. We were all extremely intimidated and afraid not to do what they told us."
Once the plane was repaired, Hennessey and the other flight attendants flew from Banjul to Bamako, Mali, and then on to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where they filled the plane with Muslims returning from the haj, the annual religious pilgrimage to nearby Mecca. "We just kept flying back and forth between Bamako and Jidda," Hennessey says. "We were literally on the plane for three days. We never got off the plane. We slept on the plane, sometimes on the floor in the galley. We washed our clothes in the sink and hung them inside the plane to dry." (Attorneys for Air Dabia and Sissoko declined to comment for this story.)
Hennessey notes that in the United States, a flight attendant is prohibited from working more than twelve hours in one day. "It's a matter of safety," he says. "You can't have members of the crew working so many hours that they end up having to sleep on the floor. Suppose there had been an emergency." He also points out that on a Boeing 747, standard operating procedures call for twelve flight attendants, but on Air Dabia there were only seven for the entire operation. "That's why we had to work every flight," he explains. "They would bring in new pilots after each flight, but not flight attendants. We were all they had."