The Baba Chronicles, Part 2
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."
After that first 72-hour stretch, Hennessey and the other crew members were given eight hours off. "We were able to shower, get something to eat, and a couple of hours of sleep in a hotel," he says. "Then we were right back on the plane." But instead of ferrying religious pilgrims, the plane was sent to Brazzaville, Congo, to pick up refugees who had streamed across the border from neighboring Kinshasa, Zaire. At the time of the flight -- early May -- the civil war in Zaire was still raging, and Mali nationals who had been working in Zaire were forced to flee. The crew was told that the Congo government was threatening to kill the refugees if they were not immediately removed.
The crew landed in Brazzaville in the middle of a terrible storm, Hennessey remembers, but bad weather was the least of their concerns. "You could hear shooting all around the plane," he says. "We loaded 800 passengers on a plane that is supposed to carry 403 people. Even though it was an emergency -- and I certainly don't want to see anybody killed -- they put all of our lives in danger. Besides, this was not the reason we were hired. We were told we were only doing the haj."
Working conditions continued to deteriorate after the evacuation flight, Hennessey says. At one point, he recalls, the flight attendants spent six days nonstop on the plane: "We were flying like dogs." Only occasionally would they be given their $50 per diem. And even though they had been promised $2500 at the outset, two weeks passed before they were given just $500 toward their salary. In addition, they discovered they had to pay for their own food. "We didn't think complaining would do any good," Hennessey says. "All I wanted to do was get through the 30 days and get home."
On May 19, Hennessey says, Mamadou Jaye announced that the crew would be going back to Brazzaville to pick up more refugees. Engine problems, however, forced the crew to lay over in Dakar, Senegal. "They took us to a hotel," he recalls. "Each of the pilots were given their own room, Mamadou Jaye was given a three-bedroom suite, but the flight attendants were told they would have to share rooms." After a month of hellish conditions, Hennessey says, this relatively minor inconvenience was more than he could take.
"I just started yelling at Mamadou Jaye," he says. "I told him he was a liar, that he had reneged on every single promise he ever made. I was screaming at him."
Two other flight attendants -- another American and a Canadian -- chimed in with their support. Mamadou Jaye responded by telling them to pack their bags; he was sending them home. "We were thrilled!" Hennessey recounts. The trio was taken by Sissoko's private jet from Senegal to Banjul, Gambia, where an Air Dabia representative boarded the plane and gave each of them the remainder of their salary -- $2000 -- plus an additional $1000 he said was a gift from Sissoko for all the trouble they had endured. The payment was made in cash -- U.S. hundred-dollar bills. Sissoko's jet then took them to Bamako, Mali, where they were told to check into a specific hotel and await the delivery of airline tickets to the United States.
Instead of plane tickets home, they were greeted at the hotel by yet another Air Dabia employee, who announced that the three flight attendants were thieves and that they had stolen the $1000 bonus. He demanded they each return $1000 of the $3000 they had been given and declared that Mamadou Jaye would have them thrown in jail if they didn't comply.
Despite the threat, they refused, and the man left. Hennessey says he and his colleagues were very scared, so they checked into a different hotel and registered in one room under an Arabic name. "We were afraid they would find us if we used our own names," Hennessey explains. They also went to the airport and bought their own outbound tickets. As a final precaution they called the American embassy to let officials know where they were staying.
The next morning they were startled by a loud banging on their hotel door. Air Dabia executives had contacted local police and Interpol to track them down. By this time Mamadou Jaye had flown in from Senegal and accompanied the police as they entered the hotel room. As police and Air Dabia officials poured in, Hennessey ran to the phone and called the embassy. He was told to stall until an American diplomat could arrive. The police informed the attendants they were under arrest and ordered them to gather their belongings. "We did it as slowly as possible," Hennessey says, "hoping help from the embassy would arrive."
The embassy staffer who arrived a few minutes later recalls the scene as being chaotic. "When I got there, the room was filled with people, and everyone was screaming and yelling," says the official, who asked that her name not be used. "The three flight attendants were really frightened. It was a very tense situation."
Soon after she arrived, the diplomat radioed for a security detail from the embassy. "There were a lot of people in that room," she says, "and the first thing I wanted to do was get everyone settled down."
Eventually the police allowed her to accompany the flight attendants to the police station. "At that point my job was to either register them in prison and contact their families or get them out somehow," she recalls. "I definitely wanted to get them out. Have you ever seen an African prison? It's a cage. It is absolutely filthy and there is little food. It's hard to describe what it would be like because we don't have anything like it in America. But trust me, you don't want to go to prison in Africa."
Hennessey says the embassy official took the three of them aside and told them to not utter a word or react to anything she was about to say. She then faced the police and the Air Dabia entourage and declared that the flight attendants were obviously guilty, that they were despicable people, and that the best possible course of action was to deport them immediately. Recalls the official: "I remember saying that this case was going to be more trouble than it was worth."
Negotiations, Hennessey says, went on for hours. At one point Mamadou Jaye asked the embassy official if she would talk to Sissoko in Miami. (Sissoko had already pleaded guilty and had been sentenced but he had not reported to prison; he was in the midst of a lobbying campaign to pressure American officials to deport him instead of jail him.) "I did speak to him by telephone," the diplomat confirms. "It was odd because I knew he was under arrest in Miami. He said to me that he really wanted to cooperate with the United States government in this matter and he said he would be willing to let these three criminals go. He wanted me to realize how much he was cooperating with us."
After that phone call, the police and Mamadou Jaye agreed to release the flight attendants, but only on the condition that they each return the entire $3000 they had been paid. "The woman from the embassy told us we had no choice," Hennessey recounts.
Before their arrest, the flight attendants had each taken a few hundred dollars and hidden them in the waist bands of their underwear. "I think each of us turned over about $2800 to the police and told them we had spent the rest," Hennessey says. "We bought ourselves out of jail. At that point, money meant nothing to me. I didn't care."
Before they left the police station, the three were placed at attention as a police official announced they could never return to Africa. "He also told us that as far as they were concerned we were all criminals," Hennessey says, "and that we were leaving Africa in disgrace. He told us that we had no honor."
Then they were herded into a car with the embassy official and driven to the airport. "In the car, we were all hysterical, crying," Hennessey remembers. "We were just so glad to get out of jail. It was seven hours of pure hell." Once at the airport they were placed on the first plane out of the country, which was a flight to Paris. "None of us took a breath until we were over the Mediterranean," Hennessey says. "When I got off the airplane in France, I kissed the ground."
Hennessey, who lives in Miami, is convinced that their detention was orchestrated by Sissoko and was related to the problems he was having in the United States. "I still have nightmares about this," he says, adding that he will never work as a flight attendant again. "I've been a flight attendant for nine years and I loved it. This was my life. But I will never fly again because of this." Today he is looking for a job as an instructor at a flight-attendant school.
"We did everything they wanted us to do, and all we wanted was our money and a ticket home," Hennessey says. "Sissoko throws around all this money and the people who work their asses off for his airline get nothing."
Hennessey says he hopes Sissoko is forced to complete the four months of house arrest right here in Miami and is then deported. "And if I could see him before he leaves, I know exactly what I would say," he offers with a smile. "I would say to him, 'You are leaving my country with nothing but shame. You are a criminal in this country. You were convicted in a court of law and you have no honor.'
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