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Controversial Travel Company Goes Up In Flames

CORAL GABLES (CBSMiami) – A Coral Gables based travel company went up in flames Friday morning and the incident has brought out the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to look into exactly what happened.

The fire started at Airline Brokers Company, Inc. located at 815 Ponce de Leon Blvd early Friday morning. The business' owner, Vivian Mannerud, has arranged flights and trips to Cuba since the 1980's. Mannerud said Friday's incident happened started on her desk..

"If you look in there, there's not remnants of anything that looks like a piece of furniture; it's been pulverized," Mannerud said.

An accelerant detection dog was brought into the business and appeared to pick up some traces of accelerant in the office.

"It really hurts," said Mannerud, "That's what it looks like to me, that the dog has found something. It hurts so much because I love my country."

A law enforcement source on the scene told D'Oench that the dog did find evidence that an accelerant had been used. Investigators brought out a bag to remove evidence from the scene.

"I think they targeted me," she told D'Oench. "I am concerned too about my 12 employes and their safety."

Mannerud told CBS4 she had been targeted before for attacks and thought this incident was another such attack.

"I got a call that it was a fully engulfed fire and I immediately in my mind knew what it was," Mannerud told CBS4 Friday. "I think I know what happened. I don't want to jump to conclusions. And it's just a very, very, very, very sad thing; if what I suspects is true, for this city and country."

She said her company helped fly 340 people on two flights to Cuba for the Archdiocese of Miami during Pope Benedict XVI's visit and that she thinks she was targeted because of that trip.

Mannerud said she has been the victim of threats in the past because of the trips she arranges to Cuba.

"We had to have armed security guard around my house for about a month," Mannerud said. "There were many, many threats...other threats with suspicious package in my car and so on."

Mannerud's business has not been without controversy over the years.

In the mid-1990's Mannerud's business of flying people to Cuba was declared illegal, according to CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald.

"You have to be insane to be in this business," Mannerud told the Herald in 1996. "It's so political. You're constantly watching what one government or another says in order to know what you will be doing the next day."

Mannerud started her company after her father had operated a charter airline named American Airways Charters from 1978-1982, according to the Herald. That company was a contractor for travel agencies that had the rights to fly exiles to Cuba.

The U.S. expelled the travel agencies American Airways Charters worked and Mannerud's father, Fernando Fuentes-Coba, was eventually sentenced to a year in jail for "trading with the enemy" in part for taking four Pepsi machines to Cuba, according to the New York Times.

Fuentes-Copa fled the country before he ever served a day behind bars.

Mannerud told CBS4 Friday she plans to work from another location Friday and does have a flight scheduled for Friday afternoon. Mannerud said her belief is people should have the choice to go to Cuba if they want.

"People should have the right to do anything that is not breaking the law," said Mannerud. "You can not tell people to not go to Cuba or to go to Cuba. We have to see what this is and take appropriate measures.The flights will go. We have one today and will have one tomorrow."

Investigators are still trying to determine if the fire was started by a Molotov cocktail or a possible fire bombing.

"In this city, getting to the bottom of this means nothing," Mannerud said. "If this happens the way I think, nothing is going to happen to whoever did this. It never happens. That's what that means."

Inside the building, a number of other businesses remained in the dark because the electricity had been shut off.

"It's pretty scary so close to our building," said Barbara Ventolini, whose company, Heery International was without electricity. Co-worker Jennifer Aguirre added, "It's scary. You don't feel safe here."

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