Tracing Padilla's Trail

ByABC News
June 15, 2002, 12:16 PM

MIAMI, June 17, 2002 -- -- Jose Padilla traveled a long road from Brooklyn to being indicted by a federal grand jury, accused by the U.S. government of conspiring to "murder, maim and kidnap" people overseas.

Interviews with friends, family, associates and law enforcement paint a picture of a lost young man who eventually found his way onto a path of radical fundamentalism and, authorities allege, conspiracy with al Qaeda. Yet many who knew him are struggling to square their recollections of Jose Padilla, also known as Abdullah al Muhajir, with the image presented by federal officials of a man preparing an attack of mass destruction.

"If you had known him, you would have never thought of him as a violent person," said Raed Mousa Awad, an imam at a mosque that Padilla attended in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after converting to Islam. "He was a polite, shy, serious gentleman, according to my observations."

Born in Brooklyn, Padilla, now 31, got in trouble with the law early. As a teen in Chicago in 1983, he pleaded guilty to simple robbery and served probation. Two years later, he was convicted of aggravated battery, armed robbery and attempted armed robbery and involved in a murder. He was in prison until 1988 when he was 18.

Padilla moved to South Florida and again ran afoul of the law. He pleaded guilty to firing a gun at another motorist in 1991 during a traffic dispute in Sunrise, Fla. While in jail in January 1992, Padilla shoved a guard twice and told him, "if you push me, you don't know what I can do to you." Padilla pleaded guilty to battery of a jail officer and resisting without violence.

He was released from jail in August 1992. Since then, his only known run-ins with the law consisted mainly of traffic violations such as driving without a license, driving with a suspended license, and speeding.

In 1992, Padilla got a job with a Taco Bell in Davie, Fla., doing food preparation. He worked there with his then-girlfriend, and later, wife, Cherie Stultz, a Jamaica native.

His boss, Mohammed Javed Qureshi, described him as a good employee. "He came in, he did his work."

Padilla knew that Qureshi was Muslim and asked his boss about converting to Islam, but Qureshi said he directed him elsewhere, since he knew he couldn't talk about religion at work.

Later, Qureshi learned that Padilla had converted to Islam. "He told me he was a Muslim and had changed his name to Ibrahim and wanted to be called Ibrahim at work," recalled Qureshi. "I told him I would continue to call him Jose Padilla as he had not officially changed his name."

Stultz had also converted and called herself Marwah. Qureshi said he did not know where or who converted the two.

Sometime in 1993, Padilla told Qureshi that he was leaving the Taco Bell to find work in construction.

Qureshi says that all the while he knew him, Padilla expressed no anti-American or anti-U.S. government sentiments.

Padilla frequented several mosques and religious schools in Broward County. He appeared to fit in well at the Masjid al-Iman mosque, according to one observer.

The imam during that time was a man named Raed Mousa Awad. He said he met Padilla in 1995 and that Padilla attended services daily, sometimes once or twice a day. "He was very active in the social activities of the mosque and very well-known in the Muslim community," Awad told ABC News.

A leader at the mosque, Yusef Shakoor, remembers Padilla as shy and helpful, but "he had no standout qualities or personality."

"He was here to learn the religion," he said. "He had no other ambition other than to learn Arabic."

Sometimes he attended prayers with Stultz, whom he married in 1996.

One person who did not wished to be identified said Awad spent quite a bit of time with Padilla and had quite an influence over him.

But Awad said he does not know when Padilla converted to Islam or who converted him.

In addition to attending prayers at the mosque, Padilla studied the Koran on Saturdays at the Darul Uloom Islamic Institute in Pembroke Pines.

Maulana Shafayat Mohamed, the prayer leader at the institute, described Padilla as a bit of an "oddity" since he was a Hispanic who had converted to Islam and always wore a red scarf over his head.

While the FBI continues to look for the person or persons who converted Padilla to Islam and connected him to al Qaeda, law enforcement sources told ABC News the concentration is on his time overseas, which began in 1998, when he left Florida for Egypt.

Awad thought that the new convert might have gone to Egypt to attend the Al-Azhar University, which has a special program to learn Arabic. Many religious leaders said it is very common for converts who want to understand Islam better to travel to the Middle East.

According to Shakoor, he would have needed money and a sponsor to study there, but did not himself know who his sponsor was.

According to one senior law enforcement official, Padilla went to Egypt and eventually became disenchanted with the moderate brand of Islam in mainstream society. The source said that Padilla became linked with a number of radical clerics who pointed him toward a more fiery brand of Islam. These clerics directed Padilla to Afghanistan, where he is accused of meeting with top al Qaeda leaders.

Introduced to al Qaeda?

There is a gap of knowledge about Padilla's travels for the three years after 1998. A number of sources believe he was training in al Qaeda camps.

In December 2001, Padilla is said to have met in Pakistan with Abu Zubaydah, who the U.S. government believes is al Qaeda's chief of operations. The two then allegedly traveled to a number of locations, including Lahore and Karachi.

Sources say Padilla then met with other al Qaeda leaders, was trained in explosives and studied how to make and detonate a radiological or "dirty" bomb. Sources say documents from caves searched in Afghanistan and a laptop confiscated make references to an "immigrant" who is developing plans to attack the United States with a "dirty bomb," which would use a conventional bomb packed with radioactive material to spread radiation over a large area.

In addition, sources say, Padilla discussed conventional bombing attacks against hotels, gas stations and other well-frequented locations. Padilla was picked up on May 8 in Chicago just as, authorities alleged, he was to begin a surveillance mission in the United States to review potential targets.

Padilla's attorney, Donna Newman, has said evidence linking her client to the "alleged 'dirty bomb' plot is weak at best."

Back in the United States, Padilla's wife divorced him in March 2001. Her attorney, Linda Smith, said Stultz had not seen or heard from her husband since December 1998, after he had left for Egypt. With no children, no assets and no debts, it was, as Smith described it, "a very simple divorce."

The hardest part was trying to find Padilla. Stultz's last known address for her husband was his mother's home. His mother, Estela Ortega Lebron, had an address for him in Egypt.

Neither Stultz nor Ortega replied to requests for interviews.

Ortega's court-appointed attorney, Victor Olds, says that Padilla's mother has no information that her son was involved in any terror plotting. She testified for nearly two hours before a federal grand jury in New York at the end of May.

After his detention on May 8, Ortega unsuccessfully tried to see her son, according to Olds.

Padilla's maternal grandparents refuse to believe the allegations. "He was a very quiet boy. He didn't want to fight anyone. I don't believe the allegations," said Maria Rosello. His grandfather, Jesus Orellana, agreed. "I don't believe it. I don't believe it. He was a nice boy."

ABC News' Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.