NEW YORK — Kathy Vigiano’s youngest son, John, was baptized just days before the September 11th attacks that killed her husband Joey — a decorated NYPD detective — and his brother, John, an FDNY firefighter.
Vigiano thought it was important for her son, John, to confront the history associated with the acts of terror, when pilots financed by Osama bin Laden slammed jets into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
So Vigiano, a former NYPD officer herself, applied to a lottery two years ago, hoping that her family would get picked for a trip to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.
Their opportunity came on February 24, when Kathy Vigiano and her oldest son, Joe — now an NYPD officer — and her youngest, John, boarded a military flight at Andrews Air Force Base, bound for Cuba.
Once in Cuba, the family took a ferry to get to the section of the island where the five, accused 9/11 planners would be in court, including the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
“He’s got an orange beard,” Vigiano said of Mohammed, who apparently uses the foods he eats to dye his long, gray beard. “In his culture, orange is a sign of prestige.”
Vigiano added, “There’s three or four panes of bulletproof glass between the spectators and the courtroom.”
No cameras are allowed in court, and Vigiano said she had to go through three metal detectors to get inside. There is no filming allowed near the “Camp America” compound either.
When PIX11 asked the widow what the suspects were wearing, she said, “It’s a combination of long, white robes and military camouflage jackets.”
She noted there were U.S. military-appointed and civilian lawyers working on the defense’s legal team, some of them women.
The women “wear hijabs,” Vigiano said, “their heads are covered, out of respect for the defendants’ religious beliefs.”
Vigiano noted that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed looked back at the spectators behind the bulletproof glass, which included a 27-year-old man from upstate New York who was just 11 years old when his mother was killed in one of the jet crashes on 9/11.
Vigiano had read quite a bit about Mohammed and the 9/11 plots before she ever flew to Cuba.
“I read more about him and how he got to the United States. He went to a college that accepted cash and didn’t ask where the money came from.”
Vigiano was disturbed by the behavior of the defendants, each assigned to separate tables with their legal teams.
“They’re sitting in the court laughing like it didn’t bother them,” Vigiano said. She noted that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed used to be a stand-up comic, in his previous life.
The widow also explained to PIX11 that spectators experience a 40-second delay in hearing what’s being said in court.
“If someone says something that compromises national security, that information is blocked out.”
Many have asked why the military trial for the five accused plotters has been so delayed. It’s been more than 16 years since the September 11th attacks.
The suspects were picked up in Pakistan between 2003 and 2004. Their financier, Osama bin Laden, was killed in 2011 during a Navy seal raid in Pakistan.
There are thousands of pages of documents associated with the case, some of them classified, and that has contributed to the long delay. Lawyers for some of the defendants argue they were treated inhumanely, in violation of the Geneva Convention.
During Vigiano’s attendance at a pre-trial hearing, she said lawyers for the five defendants argued they were not members of Al-Qaeda.
There’s a target date of January 2019 for the start of the trial.
The Vigiano family stayed in military housing during their nine-day visit to Gitmo, while some of the legal team was assigned to campground-like tents.
The chief prosecutor on the case is U.S. Army General Mark Martins, and he spent some time with the Vigianos for a tour of Gitmo.
There’s a lot of protected wildlife near Guantanamo Bay, including deadly scorpions that are caught on glue traps. Vigiano took photos of lizards and a boa constrictor, adding “The rats are the size of large cats.”
A reporter Vigiano encountered before the trip home asked if she agreed with a death penalty provision in this case.
“I said ‘Yeah, because we might get another politician in the future who will pardon terrorists, like the FALN guy who had his sentence commuted.’”
Vigiano has deep admiration for the military lawyers who have sacrificed a lot of family time back in the U.S. to work on the case.
She said her youngest son, John — just an infant when his father was killed — was profoundly impacted by the trip.
“He wants to go to a military college now,” Vigiano said. “He’s upstairs studying. West Point or Annapolis or Maritime.”
The mother of three sons added, “My kids want to join the Department of Justice or the FBI now.”