ATLANTA -- On what he considered to be an unusually slow afternoon at a Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport security checkpoint last October, security screener Alvin Spencer passed the time by placing his watch on the X-ray belt he was monitoring.
"Curiosity got the best of me, I guess," said Spencer, a federal employee of the Transportation Security Administration, "and I put my watch on the X-ray machine, just to see what it would look like."
Alvin Spencer, a security screener at Atlanta's international airport, with his watch, which went missing for six days in October. The watch came into the possession of Michael Vick.
(Photos Erik S. Lesser For The Washington Post)
A few moments later, the watch was gone. It would find its way into the hands of NFL quarterback Michael Vick, one of the league's biggest stars.
It took six days for Spencer to get the watch back. The tale of its disappearance would involve charges of a police coverup and the allegation of a $20,000 extortion attempt and pits the TSA against the Atlanta Police Department.
The unusual episode provides rare insight into what happens when a superstar athlete gets caught up in a potentially embarrassing incident.
Ultimately, a Falcons official, former NFL star Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, attempted to negotiate a financial settlement with Spencer on Vick's behalf over the missing watch, and no charges were filed. Atlanta police concluded the taking of the watch was a simple mistake that was handled correctly by its officers.
But Spencer and some in the TSA view the incident as an abuse of authority in which a police department pressured a theft victim into not filing charges to avoid embarrassing a city's football star.
Other than Spencer, most of the primary figures in the case declined to be interviewed for this story. Their version of events comes from interviews they gave to the Atlanta police's Office of Professional Standards, or internal affairs, which investigated the case after reporters brought the matter to its attention. A copy of the office's final report, which contained the interviews, was obtained by The Washington Post under a Georgia Open Records Act request. Vick refused to be interviewed by internal affairs and declined to comment for this story through the Falcons.
Spencer, 40, bought the watch, which has Rolex inscribed on its face, in Qatar last year. After having been one of the first security screeners hired by the TSA when it took over airport checkpoints in the fall of 2002, Spencer took a temporary leave from the agency to work in the Middle East for a security contractor and had purchased the watch, a few new suits and some rings, before returning to his TSA job in April.
The watch "was a symbol of what I had done while I was there," Spencer said. "Whether it's authentic or not, I don't know. It's sentimental to me."
The Missing Watch
The authenticity of the watch mattered little at about 3:15 p.m. on Oct. 12.
The Falcons were on their way to a successful season in which they reached the NFC championship game before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles. And Vick, 24, was en route to cementing his status as one of the sport's most dynamic, exciting and marketable players. He was the top overall selection in the 2001 NFL draft from Virginia Tech, and in December he signed a 10-year, $130 million contract extension with the Falcons that included $37 million in bonus money (beginning with a $7.5 million signing bonus and a $22.5 million bonus, reportedly due this month, for being on the roster).
October 12 was a Tuesday, the traditional day off for NFL players, and Vick, a spokesman for Orlando-based AirTran Airways, and the other members of his party were on their way to the carrier's afternoon flight to Newport News, Va., Vick's home town.
Surveillance camera videotapes of the security checkpoint taken that day show employees standing and waiting for passengers to enter the screening area, according to sources who have seen the tapes. Spencer is seen putting his watch in a screening bowl and laying it on the conveyor belt. Spencer is then called away by a colleague -- to attend a training session, Spencer said -- leaving the watch moving along the belt. Moments later, Vick and three traveling companions, one a toddler, pass through the checkpoint.