SCHERTZ - One chapter in the enigmatic story of Osama bin Laden might lead to a Texas pasture, where his oldest brother died 13 years ago in an accident that is still something of a mystery.
What we do know is that Salem bin Laden, 42, and the oldest of Saudi Arabia's bin Laden brothers, was on one of his frequent visits to Texas when he and friends went out for a Sunday afternoon of fun - flying low-power ultralight aircraft at an air park north of San Antonio.
What we don't know is why Salem bin Laden took off in the tiny aircraft and turned toward a nearby row of high-power electrical towers. He climbed, but not high enough to clear the upper power line. The Sprint ultralight got tangled and crashed into the ground 115 feet below.
"Of everybody who was there, nobody could figure out why he tried to fly over the power lines," said Gerry Auerbach, 77, of New Braunfels, a retired pilot for Saudi Arabian Airlines and for the bin Laden brothers, multimillionaire builders who long ago disowned Osama.
"It was kind of a weird deal," said Schertz police Lt. Stephen Starr, at the time the city's acting police chief. "He just drifted up into the wires."
It has been turned into an even weirder deal by conspiracy theorists - with the unlikely help of the Public Broadcasting Service.
In the 2000 PBS Frontline special report, Hunting bin Laden, PBS reported that Salem bin Laden died in a 1988 Texas plane crash - not in a hobby-kit-type, one-man ultralight, but in a full-size British Aerospace BAC 1-11. The death "revived some speculation that he might have been 'eliminated,' " PBS reported, adding that an accident report was "never divulged."
That's news to Starr. He and officer Lori Flowers, now an officer in nearby Windcrest, wrote a report that remains public record.
On May 29, 1988, they were called to the Kitty Hawk Field of Dreams Ultra-Lite Flying Field on the edge of Schertz, a San Antonio suburb. Bin Laden had already been taken by ambulance to an Army hospital in San Antonio, according to the police report. Officers found the crumpled remains of a crashed ultralight.
No federal investigators came to the scene, Starr said. Federal investigators do not review ultralight or glider crashes.
Salem bin Laden was not wearing a helmet and died of head injuries from the fall, the Bexar County medical examiner concluded. The wind was blowing about 30 mph, usually too strong to fly an ultralight.
The Schertz officers interviewed several witnesses. Their report concludes simply: "Freak accident."
Now armed with the PBS misreport, some conspiracy writers think Osama bin Laden blames the United States for the death of his oldest brother, the family's leader throughout most of the 1970s and '80s after their father's death in 1967.
"I don't think so," Auerbach said. "I flew Salem everywhere, and I never met Osama. I think I saw him once."
That was in the 1970s. Osama bin Laden would have been a teen-ager. "He walked through the room," Auerbach said.
"Salem said: 'Oh, that's my brother. He's probably going to pray.' "
Several of the bin Laden brothers - not Osama - owned a fleet of aircraft and visited Texas often in the 1980s, Auerbach said. He chartered a Texas company named Binladen Aviation to manage part of the family fleet.
On that particular 1988 Sunday - over a drizzly and windy Memorial Day weekend - Salem bin Laden was visiting as a guest at the wedding of Auerbach's son, he said. Bin Laden had also planned to ask about having an older BAC 1-11 refurbished in San Antonio, Auerbach said. But he was simply out for fun with friends at the ultralight park that afternoon.
"He was outgoing, a little bit flamboyant - a nice guy," Auerbach said.
He was expecting bin Laden to come by the house later that day.
Now, Auerbach said he's "like everybody else in America - I'm shocked."
"The fact that one of his brothers might be involved doesn't make any difference," Auerbach said. "What matters is - there's a nut case out there somewhere on the loose."
Things are weird enough.
There's no reason to make a weirder story out of a tragic
accident in Texas.