Padilla's Journey From Street Thug to Suspected Terrorist

MSNBC/June 11, 2002
By Jim Miklaszewski

"This man is a very dangerous man," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show, describing suspected terrorist Jose Padilla. "He started out in this country as a petty criminal. Somewhere along the way he got converted into something else."

A police gang expert in Chicago, where Padilla grew up, told the Chicago Tribune that his lengthy criminal record contains nothing that would foreshadow what federal authorities say he was planning.

"I could show you a thousand people like this," the newspaper quoted the expert, who was not identified, as saying. "These are gangbanging arrests. There's nothing to tell me he's a terrorist," the expert said.

Padilla, 31, who used the name Abdullah al Muhajir after converting to Islam in 1992 or 1993, was born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. His father died before he turned 3, and his mother moved Padilla and his four siblings to Chicago when he was 4.

Nicknamed 'Pucho'

Known as "Pucho" - a nickname that referred to his chubby cheeks - Padilla attended Darwin Elementary School in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood and enjoyed basketball and video games with his friends, former neighbors said.

Nelly Ojeda, 64, a neighbor, who knew Padilla as a teen-ager, said she was surprised by news of his arrest. "He was so quiet, so nice. He doesn't look like a person who would do something like that. It would surprise me if he did it," Ojeda said. But by the time he was a teenager, Padilla was raising hell on the streets and running with a gang, court records and police officers indicate.

The Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday that Padilla was arrested on numerous occasions and used at least seven aliases and gave police different dates of birth. He also told police he was a member of the Latin Disciples street gang, the newspaper said.

Capability for Violence

Some of his run-ins with the law were relatively minor:

In 1989 he was placed on probation after being convicted - under one of his aliases - of punching a clerk who tried to stop him from stealing a doughnut, the Tribune reported. Under his aliases, he had convictions for attempted theft, battery and resisting an officer, and was arrested between 1989 and 1991 on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing, battery, unlawful use of a weapon and obstructing police.

But in 1985, when he was 14, he showed a capability for savage violence. Padilla, and Andre Boulrece were arrested on Aug. 15, 1985, on Chicago's West Side after attacking and robbing three youths, the newspaper said, citing law enforcement officials and court records.

One of the victims, Elio Evangelista, chased Boulrece and Padilla, and at the end of the foot chase was stabbed by Boulrece in the abdomen, the newspaper said.

Padilla and Boulrece threw Evangelista to the ground and kicked him in the head, then robbed him of cash they hadn't gotten the first time and fled. Evangelista later died of his wounds.

Police said they found the $107 in bloody bills after arresting the two men. Boulrece was convicted of murder and was released from prison last year. Padilla was arrested on murder charges but convicted as a juvenile of aggravated battery, armed robbery and attempted armed robbery.

Freed on 18th Birthday

He was held in a juvenile detention center until his 18th birthday on Oct. 18, 1988, according to records and officials. "I'm shocked. I had no idea that he had become the person he is today," Boulrece told the Tribune when informed of the new charges against Padilla. Boulrece said he had not had any contact with Padilla since they were arrested.

Padilla moved to south Florida in 1991 and remained there until 1997, working in the hotel industry. In October 1991, he was arrested in Broward County and charged with aggravated assault with a firearm, firing a gun from a car, carrying a concealed firearm and possession of a gun during commission of a felony.

Police records show Padilla fired a shot out his car window after a dispute with another driver. No one was hurt. While in the county jail, he was accused of battery on a jail officer and resisting without violence.

Police said Padilla - who has "Jose" tattooed on his right arm - brandished a .38 revolver at another driver during a traffic encounter. When the other driver followed him to a gas station, Padilla fired one shot from his vehicle at the other car. No one was hurt. Police traced his license tag and staked out Padilla's home. When the officers moved in to arrest him after he drove up, he reached into his waistband where the revolver was tucked, but was disarmed by the officers, according to court records.

'He Had No Fear'

"That was the first time I thought I was going to have to shoot someone," Sunrise, Fla., police Lt. Charles Vitale told the Miami Herald. "He was just turning 21 when I arrested him, and he had no fear of pulling a gun on a police officer. You just knew he was going to turn out really bad."

Padilla settled all the charges with guilty pleas after 10 months behind bars. He was sentenced to a year in jail, the rest of the term was suspended, and he was placed on a year's probation.

On Monday, his prosecutor had no recollection of him. His defense attorney did not immediately return a call for comment.

Padilla was issued a Florida driver's license in 1993, and state motor vehicle records show he racked up about a dozen speeding tickets and motor vehicle infractions from 1995 to 1997. The state of Florida repeatedly sent notices telling Padilla that he had failed to pay fines and appear in court, but it got no response from 1996 to 1998, after which records aren't available. His license was suspended indefinitely in 1997 for speeding.

Conversion to Islam

A Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Padilla, who neighbors in Chicago said was raised a Catholic, converted to Islam after his 1993 release from jail, taking on the name Abdullah al Muhajir. But officials in Florida indicated that Padilla's conversion may have begun when he was in the Broward County Jail after the road rage incident.

Veda Coleman-Wright, a spokeswoman for the Broward Sheriff's Office, said the county jail offers Islamic services to inmates, makes available copies of the Koran and arranges visits with Muslim clerics. Sheriff's officials planned a news conference Tuesday at which a Muslim cleric who counseled Padilla was to speak.

Padilla married Cherie Maria Stultz, a Florida woman described by a former landlord as a devout Muslim, in 1996. They were divorced last year after apparently living separately since at least February 1999, the Miami Herald reported.

On his marriage license, Padilla, whose family is believed to have come to the country from Puerto Rico, described himself as African American, and he used only one name: Ibrahim, the newspaper said.

Padilla's mother, Estela Ortega Lebron, has remarried and now lives in Plantation, Fla. On the door of her home Monday night was a note reading, "Please leave this family in peace," and referring all questions to a New York law firm.

The lawyer representing Ortega Lebron, Victor Olds, told the Washington Post that his client had appeared before a grand jury two weeks ago to discuss her son. He said she had been in contact with him before his arrest, but not since.

But the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Padilla's former landlady there, Norma Leon, as saying that in recent years his mother had said during a phone conversation that her son had left the country to join a cult. "She was scared for him," Leon told the newspaper.

American Taliban III

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who first disclosed Padilla's arrest Monday in a television announcement from Moscow, said Padilla "trained with the enemy," studying how to wire explosives and researching radiological weapons.

Ashcroft said Padilla met several times in 2001 with senior al-Qaida officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he traveled after he served one year's probation on state weapons and assault charges in Sunrise, Fla.

That year, Padilla's travels allegedly took a more ominous turn: U.S. officials said that in December 2001, as U.S. warplanes pummeled the mountain caves at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, Padilla met with Abu Zubaydah, a top al-Qaida operative, in Khost. With U.S. forces closing in, Zubaydah and Padilla fled to Pakistan.

In January 2002, U.S. officials said, Padilla and Zubaydah moved around western Pakistan before settling in Lahore. U.S. officials say it is there that Padilla offered to carry out a massive bombing campaign inside the United States. At a safehouse in Lahore, Padilla allegedly learned to build and detonate explosives.

Meets with Al-Qaida Hierarchy

In February or early March, Padilla allegedly met with other senior al-Qaida officials in Karachi to offer a more detailed plan of attack, with the intent to bomb U.S. hotels and gas stations, and to explode a radiological bomb in Washington, D.C.

"He was instructed to return to the United States to conduct reconnaissance operations for al-Qaida," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

On March 28, U.S. commandos captured Zubaydah in a raid on a safehouse in Faisalabad.

Then, in April, Pakistani authorities arrested Padilla for a visa violation. U.S. officials said they already were looking for Padilla, and when the Pakistanis released him, the CIA and FBI were hot on his trail.

U.S. agents tracked him from Pakistan to Geneva, Switzerland, where he picked up a large amount of cash, officials said.

On May 8, Padilla boarded a flight for Chicago - not realizing the flight was loaded with FBI agents. Arrested that day in Chicago, he was transferred to the federal detention center in Manhattan.

Late Sunday night, Padilla was turned over to the U.S. military for a short flight to the Navy prison in Charleston, S.C.

Padilla becomes the third U.S. citizen detained since the Sept. 11 attacks. John Walker Lindh, 21, who was arrested in Afghanistan, faces charges in U.S. court in Virginia of conspiring to murder Americans and providing services to the Taliban and al-Qaida. The other is Yasser Essam Hamdi, 22, an American-born prisoner who was transferred from Guantanamo to a prison at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia.

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