WASHINGTON, DCIndependent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation into the behavior of Bill Clinton suffered a major setback Monday, when the embattled president escaped through an air vent minutes before he was to testify before a federal grand jury.
Clinton's dramatic escape occurred at the William O. Douglas Federal Courthouse, to which he had been subpoenaed for questioning about alleged perjury in the Linda Tripp/Monica Lewinsky affair.
Though Starr and other federal prosecutors immediately sounded the building's red alert, touching off a full-scale manhunt for Clinton, the president has not been located as of press time.
The air-vent escape took place shortly after 3 p.m., when law-enforcement personnel left Clinton unattended in a waiting room adjacent to the grand-jury chambers, only to discover the president missing upon their return several minutes later.
"At first, we had no idea how he had gotten out," said Brian Kolterman, one of two federal agents assigned to guard the room in which Clinton was being held. Upon discovering the escape, the two agents reportedly pinwheeled wildly about the room, bewildered because there was no secondary door through which the president could have left. "It didn't make any sense."
Within minutes, Starr had been apprised of Clinton's escape and demanded an explanation from the two guards. "We fumbled for something to say, but there was no accounting for the president's disappearance," Kolterman said. "But then, Starr looked up toward the ceiling."
An expression of rage, witnesses reported, came over Starr's face as the befuddled agents followed the special investigator's gaze overhead. There, in the middle of the ceiling, a grid panel covering one of the building's ventilation shafts had been removed and was sitting diagonally askew in its casing, as if it had been hastily replaced.
"You fools! He's in the air vent!" Starr shouted at the agents, slamming his fist into his open palm. "After him!"
Added Starr: "Curses! Just when I thought I had Clinton nailed for perjury, he somehow eludes my grasp yet again!"
Exactly what happened after Clinton crawled into the courthouse's labyrinthine network of ventilator ducts is unknown as of press time. However, the president was briefly spotted when a group of reporters playing cards in an unoccupied courtroom noticed plaster falling from the ceiling onto their table, prompting them to look up and see the president's surprised face gazing down at them from a ceiling grate.
The reporters immediately opened fire, riddling the ceiling area with questions. When the smoke cleared, however, Clinton was nowhere to be found.
"He apparently secured himself behind a sheet-metal barricade and then must have escaped down a nearby side-hatch," NBC News reporter Tim Russert said.
"But even still," Russert continued, "that doesn't explain how he made it through the booby-trapped pool of electric eels. How does he do it? No other man has ever faced the eels and lived."
Upon learning of the electric eels' defeat at the hands of the president, Starr reportedly cradled their lifeless bodies in his arms, saying through sobs, "My precious, precious pets... you shall be avenged. Oh, yes, you shall be avenged."
Throughout his presidency, Clinton has shown an uncanny knack for escaping trouble, demonstrating an ability to work his way out of the most seemingly impossible predicaments. In 1992, while campaigning for president, he narrowly averted incriminating allegations about a longterm affair with Gennifer Flowers by grabbing a rope ladder hanging from an overhead helicopter and flying off. In March 1997, he foiled Whitewater prosecutors with an ingenious pocket-sized combination tranquilizer-blowdart/fountain pen.
Clinton's most impressive escape, however, came earlier this year, when, stabbed 23 times in the torso and left leg, he avoided implication in numerous campaign-fundraising scandals by diving shirtless into the Potomac River from atop the blazing Democratic Party headquarters, mere moments before the flaming structure exploded.
"Many insiders thought for sure that prosecutors had Clinton that time," George Washington University political analyst Jonas Mattson said. "Conventional wisdom held that no human could have survived that deadly plunge. But when Clinton finally surfaced, gripping a dagger between his teeth and waving confidently to cameramen on the scene, the nay-sayers were reduced to such clichés as, 'Curse him! Does this Clinton have nine lives?' Trite as it may sound, perhaps he does."