For a few fleeting hours, Kenneth Stethem held onto a thin wisp of hope that maybe this time, after all the years, justice had finally been served.
On Saturday, authorities in Greece announced the arrest of a man they said was connected to the 1985 hijacking that led to the death of Stethem’s younger brother, Navy diver Robert Stethem. He was a 23-year-old passenger on TWA Flight 847, commandeered by jihadis who tortured and shot him to death.
The hopeful story was picked up by media around the world, including Military Times. Greek media reported that it was the man who fired the fatal shot.
But Sunday afternoon, Stethem, a retired Navy SEAL, received a telephone call that would disintegrate the wisp.
“It was not Mohammed Ali Hammadi,” Kenneth Stethem, 58, told Military Times in an exclusive interview.
Stethem said an official from the Department of Justice called him Sunday afternoon to tell him that the man arrested by Greek authorities had no connection to the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.
Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi deferred questions about the arrest to Greek authorities.
After Greek police announced the arrest, the Foreign Ministry in Beirut, Lebanon said the man detained in Greece is a Lebanese journalist called Mohammed Saleh, and that a Lebanese embassy official planned to try to visit him on Sunday, the Associated Press reported.
However, according to the AP, several Greek media outlets identified the detainee as Mohammed Ali Hammadi, who was arrested in Frankfurt in 1987 and convicted in Germany for the plane hijacking and Stethem’s slaying.
Based on the photo of the man arrested, and details contained in the German warrant, Kenneth Stethem initially told Military Times he was convinced the man was Hammadi, someone who for years he has been trying to bring to justice. But he called back at around 4 p.m., to say he was contacted by the DOJ official with the grim news.
Stethem would not divulge that individual’s name.
The incident, Stethem said, was the latest in what has become a horrific emotional roller coaster ride for his family since the hijacking.
According to the FBI, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Hammadi and a second terrorist brandishing grenades and pistols during a routine flight from Athens to Rome on June 14, 1985.
“Over a horrific 17 days, TWA pilot John Testrake was forced to crisscross the Mediterranean with his 153 passengers and crew members, from Beirut to Algiers and back again, landing in Beirut three times before he was finally allowed to stop,” according to the FBI website. "The terrorists had tied passengers up and were beating them, threatening to kill them unless hundreds of Lebanese were released from Israeli prisons.
“It was on June 15, during the first stop in Beirut, that 23-year-old Robert Stethem of Waldorf, Maryland — a U.S. Navy diver — was severely beaten by Hammadi and his accomplice, was dragged to the opened aircraft door, was shot point blank in the head, and was thrown onto the tarmac of Beirut airport.”
Stethem said he had to endure watching these events unfold and initially was not given information that the man seen in photos was his brother.
He said at first, he and his family could not tell because the body was so badly beaten.
Eventually, it was confirmed, but that was just the beginning of the saga. Ever since, Stethem has worked to bring his brother’s killers to justice.
There have been other occasional glimmers of hope.
Hammadi was indicted on Nov. 14, 1985, and later arrested in the Frankfurt airport on Jan. 13, 1987, carrying explosives in his luggage, according to the FBI. The U.S. sought extradition, but the Federal Republic of Germany decided to prosecute Hammadi in Germany and, on May 17, 1989, convicted him of murder, hostage taking, assault, and hijacking. Hammadi was sentenced to life in prison. However, on Dec. 15, 2005, Hammadi was released from custody and returned to Beirut the next day.
Ever since, Stethem, who retired from the Navy in 2000 after a 20-year career, has been working to shed light on the case. Meanwhile, an eclectic group of former military personnel and others had been working on their own operational plan to capture Hammadi.
Neither effort paid off, said Stethem, adding that the U.S. government hasn’t done enough to bring Hammadi to justice. It is an effort, he said, complicated by the fact that Hammadi has been protected by brothers, senior leaders in the Hezbollah jihadi organization.
“The Reagan administration failed to get Hammadi extradited from West Germany in 1987 and a deal was struck with the Germans that if he was found guilty, he would serve his sentence and when and if he was released, he would be turned over to the United States Justice Department,” Stethem said. “George W. Bush allowed Germany to release Hammadi without bringing him back to the United States as agreed upon. And during Bush’s war on terror, the administration had to be forced by our family to submit a formal diplomatic request to Lebanon for the extradition of Hammadi. We had to shame them into it.”
It was “painful to lose him this way, and then the pain has been piled on by the disappointment of the administrations in failing to secure Hammadi when we had the opportunity to do so,” he said.
“How can we expect to win the war on terrorism, when we can’t pressure one government, a NATO member holding a terrorist, and force them to release him?” Stethem asked rhetorically. “How can we win a war when we can’t win an argument with another country about justice? This should be a rallying point for all our government leaders to put their differences aside, and let’ts get this guy home and honor Rob’s memory for the sacrifices he made.”
Stethem said he remembers his brother as a man of faith and patriotism who grew up in a military family.
“His body gone but his spirit is here,” said Stethem, a retired chief boatswain’s mate (SEAL/EOD). “He was such a spirited individual. He was an awesome worker. He loved diving. He had a passion for life, loved our country and loved his God.”
Robert Stethem “had faith,” his older brother said. “He had faith in our government. He had faith in the calling of service. He was proud to be a U.S. Navy diver.”
On March 12, 1986, Robert Stethem was awarded posthumously the Bronze Star on behalf of President Ronald Reagan by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman.
The 13th warship of the Arleigh Burke class of guided-missile destroyers proudly honors his name. The vessel was christened on July 16, 1994, by Patricia L. Stethem, the mother of the slain diver, and commissioned on Oct. 21, 1995.
After hearing what at first seemed to be good news, Stethem said he was “very cautiously optimistic and justifiably so. Most people would probably be very excited and very happy. I had a lot of people who called who were just that.”
He said he was wary because of how Hammadi was previously released. Still, Stehem said that he was glad that his parents, Patricia and Richard, were still alive to possibly see Hammadi brought to justice.
But for the family and friends, Stethem said that the call from the Justice Department means that wait continues.
“This is an example of what our family and other families have to go through, even this long after an incident,” said Stethem.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.