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Pair Suspected in Bombings Held in Israel : Crime: Ministry of Justice says couple were arrested in the 1980 death of a Manhattan Beach secretary. They had earlier been mentioned as suspects in the 1985 death of Orange County Arab-American leader Alex M. Odeh.

March 25, 1991|MARK LANDSBAUM and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — An Israeli couple was arrested Sunday in an 11-year-old murder in which a Manhattan Beach secretary was killed by a letter bomb.

An Israeli Ministry of Justice spokeswoman, reached in Jerusalem late Sunday, said that American-born Israeli immigrants Robert and Rochelle Manning were in custody in the 1980 death of Patricia Wilkerson.

The Mannings had been suspects in the 1985 bombing death in Orange County of Arab-American leader Alex M. Odeh. And early Sunday, the British news agency, Reuter, in a story from Jerusalem, reported that Israel Radio had announced that the couple had been arrested in the bombing at the entrance of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee office in Santa Ana that killed Odeh, 41.

But the Israeli Ministry of Justice spokeswoman, Etty Eshed, said there was "no connection at all" between the arrests and the Odeh case. "That's the one thing I know for sure."

"The Minister of Justice is going to bring the case to court and I think, if the court will decide, then give them to the United States," she said.

An FBI spokeswoman could not confirm any arrest report Sunday.

"If indeed they were arrested, it was not through (the cooperation) of the FBI, so I cannot confirm this. I'm not aware of it," said FBI spokeswoman Sharon Smith. "He (Robert Manning) may well have been arrested at the request of another agency."

A Santa Ana police spokesman said the investigation had been taken over by the FBI.

In 1988, Rochelle Manning was tried for the murder of Wilkerson, but prosecutors were forced to dismiss the case after a jury could not reach a verdict. She then returned to Israel--where her husband had remained a fugitive under indictment in the same bombing.

Federal authorities had considered the Mannings suspects in the Odeh slaying before the Wilkerson murder trial.

Reuter, in its early report Sunday, said the Mannings were arrested at the request of the United States government in the death of Odeh, the former chairman of the West Coast region of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), who died Oct. 11, 1985, after he opened the door to the committee's office and tripped a wire that detonated a powerful bomb.

The incident occurred a day after Odeh defended the Palestine Liberation Organization in a television interview. Palestinians said Odeh was not a PLO activist.

Even though it was not clear for what crimes the Mannings were arrested Sunday, the news was enthusiastically received by Odeh's friends and associates.

"If this process is carried to maturity the way it should be, then . . . it will reinforce in my mind and the mind of other people that, sooner or later, justice will prevail," said Odeh's brother, Sami Odeh, an Orange County real estate agent. "I have been expecting that to happen for a long time. The Israeli government has been stalling. . . ."

Odeh's widow, Norma, generally has declined interview requests and could not be reached Sunday.

Gregory Nojeim , ADC director of legal services, characterized the arrests as "a very, very significant development" in a telephone interview from Washington

"Since the FBI identified Mr. Manning as a prime suspect in this (Odeh) case at least four years ago, the ADC has urged the White House and the State Department to work with the Israeli government to have Mr. Manning arrested and brought to justice," Nojeim said.

Albert Mokhiber, ADC national president, said the FBI had suggested as recently as two weeks ago to members of the Arab-American organization that "something like this was about to happen." He said his organization is awaiting official FBI comment.

The Israeli Justice Ministry is examining the extradition request, made after new evidence emerged, according to Reuter.

Israel Radio described Manning, 38, as an activist of the anti-Arab Kach movement founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in New York last year.

The Mannings are residents of the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, a stronghold of Kahane supporters, near Hebron on the Occupied West Bank.

Kach activists reportedly will mount a campaign to block extradition. While Israel ordinarily does not extradite its citizens, there reportedly is no legal barrier in this case because the Mannings allegedly committed the crime before they became Israeli citizens, Reuter reported.

Since the Odeh killing, Arab-Americans have complained that the U. S. government has moved too slowly in the investigation. Some insisted that Manning had been mentioned by authorities as a prime suspect within hours of the blast.

In Orange County, the bombing took a toll on the local ADC chapter, which numbers about 350.

The organization is "not as active as it used to be with Alex's leadership," Sami Odeh said. "When you are exposed to that kind of terror it tends to leave (a) profound impact on your life. . . . I would not wish this kind of grief on anybody."

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