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The Twisted Trajectory of a Chicago Felon

Suspect: Padilla, accused of plotting a 'dirty' bomb attack on U.S. soil, has a history of serious run-ins with the law dating to his youth.

June 11, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG and ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — By the time he moved to sunny Florida, Jose Padilla had a tattoo of his given name on his right arm and three felony convictions--for armed robbery, attempted armed robbery and aggravated battery.

He was of Puerto Rican origin, Brooklyn-born but raised in the dreary Chicago row houses and tenements of the west side neighborhood of Logan Square. The once-Polish enclave now is heavily populated by Latinos and plagued by high crime and high school dropout rates.

As a juvenile, he was arrested at least five times. He once was charged as an accessory to murder, but it is unclear whether he was convicted. Under Illinois law, court records of underage defendants are sealed.

Those facts read like the depressingly typical early trajectory of an inner-city thug--but with an astonishing twist. On Monday, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced that Padilla, now 31 and known as Abdullah al Muhajir, had been arrested for plotting with Osama bin Laden's henchmen to detonate a "dirty" bomb that would spread deadly radioactive material on U.S. soil.

"We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb," Ashcroft said.

But according to 64-year-old Nelly Ojeda, who lives in the same Chicago apartment building where the alleged convert to Islamic extremism grew up: "I don't think that boy did anything.

"He used to always say hi and smiled a lot."

The few other neighbors who remembered Padilla--he went by the street name "Pucho" back then--said he was a quiet child. But according to police and detention officials in Illinois, he was in custody in that state from late 1985 until he turned 18 on Oct. 18, 1988.

By the early 1990s, Padilla had moved to a deteriorating neighborhood in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., suburb of Lauderhill, east of the Everglades.

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound man with piercing dark eyes, closely cropped brown hair and a jaunty mustache found work in 1991 setting up banquet tables at a Holiday Inn.

But within two weeks, he was in trouble with the law over a road rage incident.

Road Rage Incident

On Oct. 8, according to police reports, Padilla was at the wheel of a black Toyota Tercel when he pulled a handgun at a busy intersection. Shortly thereafter, he fired a shot at another car. He was as close as 20 feet, but missed.

The two occupants of the other vehicle, driven by Victor Lento, got Padilla's license number. When police showed up at Padilla's residence, they said he attempted to retrieve something from his waistband. Patting him down, officers found a .38-caliber silver revolver hidden under his shirt. He admitted firing a shot during the traffic altercation, but said he had aimed in the air.

"He looked over and he snarled," Lento testified at Padilla's trial, claiming the other man had veered into his path as both cars stopped for a red light. "He was yelling, I was yelling, and ... I seen a shining gun."

Lento tried to cut Padilla off at a gas station, and said that was when the young man fired at him out of his car window.

Padilla pleaded guilty to three felony charges of discharging a firearm from a vehicle, carrying a concealed firearm and aggravated assault; he was sentenced to 364 days in the Broward County Jail and a year's probation. At his trial, he became so disgruntled he filed a motion to fire his court-appointed counsel, Assistant Public Defender Brian G. Reidy.

"He don't want to listen to nothing I have to say," Padilla complained to the judge, according to the transcript of court proceedings. "He don't tell me what he's going to do. He don't explain to me what he's doing. He makes decisions without me. He don't ask my family."

Specifically, Padilla complained that the lawyer had put his mother under oath without consulting him. Reidy countered that he had advised his client to be "completely honest and candid" when answering questions about his prior criminal record.

When the judge asked Padilla exactly what he was seeking, the defendant replied: "Just want people to be honest with me, tell me what's going on."

Officer Attacked

While in the Broward County Jail, Padilla on Jan. 4, 1992, shoved a corrections officer twice in the chest. The two men wrestled, until another officer helped restrain Padilla and the prisoner could be handcuffed.

"Well, he was a pretty strong guy," Sheriff's Deputy Wilbur Kegler, who came to his colleague's aid, remembered under oath. "He was resisting a little bit, and we had to place him on his bunk so we could apprehend him and handcuff him and everything, because he was pretty violent."

Even when cuffed, Kegler said, Padilla kept fighting. The corrections officers summoned all available deputies to assist.

"He just wouldn't listen to anybody," Kegler said. "Any time we tried to grab him ... he just kept shoving us away. He didn't want to be touched or listen to anybody."

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