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Orange County Focus

Countywide : Alex Odeh's Hopes Near Realization

October 11, 1993|ERIC LICHTBLAU

Today, as he has done each of the past eight years on this date, Sami Odeh will visit the grave of his older brother, Alex, at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange.

He will say a Rosary. He will leave fresh flowers at the tombstone. And he will mourn the unrealized hopes and dreams that were shattered on Oct. 11, 1985, when a bomb ripped through Alex Odeh's office at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee quarters in Santa Ana.

But this year is different. Not only has a onetime Jewish activist suspected in the slaying been extradited to the United States in an unrelated case, but Alex Odeh's vision--a homeland for the Palestinian people--has now moved toward reality.

On the very day that Odeh died eight years ago, Israelis were voicing fears of rising persecution and isolation after a series of bloody run-ins between Jews and Arabs. In the days and weeks before, seven Israeli vacationers had been slain by a berserk Egyptian policeman, an Israeli air raid had killed 60 people at a Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters, and American passenger Leon Klinghoffer had been killed by terrorists on the ocean liner Achille Lauro.

But the mood has shifted dramatically in the Middle East in those eight years. An air of hope prevails, an attitude captured by the image of Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn one month ago to declare peace.

It was a day that friends and family say Alex Odeh had envisioned.

"He was a man ahead of his time," Sami Odeh, 43, said of his late brother and his work in Arab-American affairs. "He knew this would happen, but unfortunately, he never got to see it. His life was cut short before he could see this happen in his lifetime."

A published poet, Alex Odeh taught Arabic and Middle East history at Coastline College and served as regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Just 12 hours before his death, he had appeared on a local television broadcast, praising Arafat and criticizing the media for linking the PLO to the Achille Lauro hijacking.

The next morning, the fatal blast erupted as Odeh opened the door to the ADC offices on the second-floor of a three-story stucco building on East 17th Street. Odeh was 41 years old and left behind a wife and three daughters, who now live in Anaheim.

Seven other people who were nearby at the time of the blast suffered minor injuries.

Authorities have not arrested anyone in the attack, but they have repeatedly named Jewish activist Robert Manning, a demolitions expert, as the prime suspect.

He may never be charged, however, because he was extradited to Los Angeles from Israel three months ago to face murder charges in the unrelated 1980 bombing death of a Manhattan Beach secretary, and authorities say international law could preclude him from being tried on charges other than the specific ones for which he was extradited.

Manning's wife, Rochelle, is also charged in the Manhattan Beach bombing and is fighting extradition from Israel.

Despite the frustrations of the case, Sami Odeh said in an interview that he still holds hope that authorities may bring someone to justice in his brother's murder.

Sami Odeh, a real estate broker, said he believes that others besides the Mannings may have been involved in the planning and execution of the bombing. The extradition, he said, "has increased hope that maybe (the Mannings) will reveal information to allow some sort of charge against somebody. Until that happens, it's just a hope.

"But you can't give up hope. If you do, you lose everything," he said.

On Oct. 30, friends and family members will gather in Garden Grove for the annual awarding of a humanitarian award in Alex Odeh's memory. This year it will go to Candy Lightner, who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving after her daughter was killed in 1980.

Family members are also gearing up for the installation of a six-foot statue of Odeh on the lawn of the main library in Santa Ana to mark his 50th birthday. That is supposed to happen in April, and Sami Odeh said: "We're working frantically to meet that deadline."

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