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SHOOTING AT LAX

FBI Looks for Motive in LAX Attack

Investigation: Agency has no evidence gunman had terrorist ties but says it can't be ruled out. With few leads, officials seek public's help.

July 06, 2002|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN and JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A day after a 41-year-old Egyptian immigrant walked into Los Angeles International Airport and killed two people at an El Al ticket counter, authorities said they had uncovered no evidence that the man had any connection to organized terrorist groups, or that he had quarreled with anyone at the airport prior to pulling out his weapons.

FBI officials said they were still looking for clues of terrorist connections to the assailant, a devout Muslim who died in the ensuing shootout with security guards. They also said they were trying to figure out if the gunman, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, might have been despondent, suicidal, motivated by ethnic hatred--or a combination of all of those factors.

Terrorism, however, "certainly can't be ruled out," said FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin.

Authorities said they had little meaningful evidence so far, and appealed for the public's help.

Authorities said Hadayet parked his new Mercedes with personalized license plates "GOALIS" in the parking garage directly in front of the El Al Israel Airlines ticket counter shortly before the 11:30 a.m. shooting. Dressed in a dark suit jacket and light shirt, he carried a 6-inch knife in a scabbard on his hip, and had 9-millimeter and .45-caliber handguns. Both guns were registered to him. He also had a loaded magazine for each weapon stuffed in each of his pockets--the 9 millimeter in his right front pocket, the .45 in his left.

Arranging the magazines in this way suggested he intended to fire many rounds, officials said, and that he had experience using firearms.

"It is the most efficient way to reload," McLaughlin said. "He didn't get that opportunity."

Hadayet began firing toward the counter from somewhere in the ticket line, about 20 feet back, McLaughlin said. He said investigators had concluded that witness reports of an argument preceding the shots were unsubstantiated, and they believe the man said nothing before firing.

An unarmed El Al security guard nearby was the first to leap toward him in an effort to tackle him. This guard grabbed the attacker, who was still holding his gun, but could not immediately subdue him, and Hadayet was able to fire more shots.

"He didn't say a single word," recalled one bystander, Orna Yarzin of Los Angeles, who said the gunman was firing with a deliberate air, aiming and shooting rather than firing indiscriminately.

As the two wrestled, a second, armed security guard behind the counter moved forward, firing possibly two times as he approached the melee, and ultimately joining the struggle, along with at least one bystander, McLaughlin said. At least two passengers claimed Thursday to have helped subdue the gunman, and several bystanders corroborated the account of one of them, Israeli emigre Arie Golan.

During the fight, the armed guard was stabbed three times by the assailant, including once through the back.

"It was a very dynamic situation," McLaughlin said. "One security guard was wrestling him while he was shooting. The El Al security guard leapt over the counter, fired one round at some range and fired one or more rounds as he closed, because the man continued to fire. He had the knife with a 6-inch blade in the other hand and was wielding that as well."

The exact sequence of events remains unclear, however, said McLaughlin, including such details as when bystanders joined the fight and when the shooter's gun skittered away.

McLaughlin disputed accounts from bystanders that Hadayet had been shot after being disarmed and held on the ground. The Los Angeles Police Department also cited contradictory accounts. McLaughlin said authorities do not know exactly when Hadayet received the fatal shot, or at what range.

He said the gunman may have been shot as the second security guard approached him, and that he had managed to continue struggling for some moments after receiving the mortal wound. Law enforcement officials did not deny witness accounts that Hadayet was shot while held on the ground. But they suggested a different sequence of events.

Several witnesses gave similar accounts to The Times. Among them was Hakim Hafidh, a fitness instructor from Germany, who was checking in at the adjacent LTU International Airways terminal when the shooting began. He said he saw one security guard and Golan wrestle the man to the ground.

"When he fell to the ground, the gun fell to the side," Hafidh said. "I heard someone scream 'Don't touch the gun!' "

Next, according to Hafidh, his girlfriend, Petra Dutschek, and two companions, William and Cornelia Bergmann, the second El Al security guard approached the writhing trio and shot the gunman.

"I felt he had lost [the struggle] before they shot him," Hafidh said.

That account may not conflict significantly with the FBI's version of events, however. Although Hadayet may have dropped one gun, he had another, and was able to seriously wound the second guard with a knife.

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