NAPLES — Three men reportedly overheard talking about a terrorist plot were pulled over and detained for 17 hours Friday before authorities said the men were apparently kidding around and released them.
Afterward, the three drove to a rest stop, where they told reporters they were medical students heading to Miami for training and denied making any comments or jokes about terrorism. Police declined to say what the men told them during questioning.
“If this was a hoax, they will be charged,” Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter said angrily after an all-day search of the men’s two cars turned up no sign of explosives.
It was unclear what charges, if any, the men might face in Florida or Georgia, where a woman told authorities she heard them plotting at a restaurant Thursday morning.
At the rest stop, Ayman Gheith, who has a long beard and wore a skull cap, said the woman may have been influenced by his appearance.
“She saw obviously the way I was dressed and maybe she put a little salt and pepper into her story,” he said.
The men later told CNN they were unaware of any problems in the restaurant. “The words 9-11, the words September weren’t even mentioned in the conversation. Or September 13th. We were talking about what we were going to do in Miami,” Gheith said.
The cars were stopped after the Georgia woman reported overhearing three men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent making “alarming” comments during breakfast at the restaurant in Calhoun, Ga., said Mickey Lloyd of the Georgia Department of Public Safety.
According to authorities, one of the men said Americans “mourned on 9/11 and they are going to mourn again on 9/13.” They also said the target of “possible terrorist activities” was in the Miami area.
Georgia officials issued an alert based on the woman’s report and the cars were stopped at 1 a.m. after one went through the Interstate 75 toll booth east of Naples, authorities said. The men told CNN they paid the toll, but that the attendant was confused about whether they had.
The men were detained in a van while authorities used dogs and a robot to go through the cars.
“The whole time I kept asking, ’Why are we being pulled over? Why is this happening?”’ Kambiz Butt said during the TV interview.
Police did not tell them why they had been detained until shortly before their release, Omar Chaudhary added.
The men are of Jordanian, Iranian and Pakistani descent — one a U.S. native, another a naturalized citizen and the third the holder of a valid visa, authorities said.
Relatives of the men criticized the investigation, suggesting they had been singled out because of their heritage.
“I don’t know what the lady in the restaurant heard or assumed. She must have had some kind of prejudice,” father Javed Chaudhary, a Pakistani immigrant, said from his home in Independence, Mo. He said his son is 23 and was born in Detroit.
“I feel like we don’t have freedom here anymore. Anybody can call anybody to make any kind of accusation. And the authorities treat you like you are a criminal.”
Hana Gheith of suburban Chicago also said she didn’t believe the report about her brother, who she said is 27. She said he was driving to Miami with friends to find an apartment before starting a training program at a hospital.
“My brother doesn’t joke about these matters,” she said, her voice at times shaking with anger. “A lot of Muslims suffered in 9/11.”
The woman who reported the comments is Eunice Stone of Cartersville, Ga., a 44-year-old nurse who told Fox News Network that she was eating at a Shoney’s restaurant in Calhoun when she heard the men talking. The town in rural north Georgia has a population of 10,000.
“I thought anybody that’s laughing about 9-11, I know they have that right, but there’s something wrong with them,” Stone told Fox. She later told The Associated Press the incident was “kind of scary.”
Associated Press reporters John Solomon in Washington and Brendan Farrington and Tal Abbady in Miami contributed to this report.