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Padilla Didn't Convert to Islam While in Jail, Ex-Employer Says

June 12, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It was not in his jail cell but while working at a Taco Bell with his girlfriend that suspected Islamic terrorist Jose Padilla embraced his new faith, his former manager said Tuesday.

"Both Jose and Cherie were interested in Islam," remembered Mohammed Javed, 49, a Pakistani immigrant who managed the fast-food Mexican restaurant in Davie, a town west of here. "As employer, I couldn't go into religion. I told him: 'Check the Yellow Pages, and you'll find where to go. Any mosque, any imam will help you.' "

Javed recalled a hard-working young man, but one he said might have been particularly vulnerable to manipulation. "He was very poor," Javed said. "The way to get recruits is to lure them with money.

"He fell into the wrong hands."

In 1992, the former Chicago youth gang member and a woman he would eventually marry, Cherie Maria Stultz, showed up at Javed's restaurant looking for work, and both were hired. That October, Padilla was released from jail after serving a 10-month sentence for shooting at another motorist during a road rage incident, Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne said Tuesday.

"At the time, there were 20 Islamic centers or mosques in the area, and they could have gone to any one of them," said Javed, co-founder of the Broward School of Islamic Studies, a school and mosque. "They could have gone to any mosque. All it takes [to convert] is to say: 'I believe in one God, and Muhammad is the last prophet, and I bear witness to that.' "

After becoming a Muslim, Padilla started calling himself Ibrahim, and Stultz changed her first name to Marwa, Javed said. Padilla worked at the Taco Bell for two years, then disappeared. His relations with his manager never went beyond those of employer-employee, Javed said.

"Both of them were very ... hard-working, no problem whatsoever," Javed said.

"I made a call to the local FBI office last night and told them I knew this man, and if there's anything I can do ... ," said Javed, who came to the United States in 1971. He said he and other Muslim activists in South Florida still were trying to pin down when and where the conversions took place.

"What's scary is that we didn't pay any attention," he said. "We don't question if people are Muslims by birth or conversion. Mosques and centers will have to be more careful.

"We must remind everyone that we must defend America first."

Padilla, now 31, has told government interrogators that he first became interested in Islam while serving time in Broward County, according to law enforcement officials in Washington. At a news conference at sheriff's headquarters here, Jenne said he had unearthed no evidence that Padilla, also known now as Abdullah al Muhajir, had become a Muslim while incarcerated following his Oct. 8, 1991, arrest for the road rage episode.

"We do not have any documents that support that this conversion took place in the jail," Jenne said. "We do not have any documents--and we do have documentation for that period of time--that shows that he requested to speak to an imam, that he asked to attend any Islamic classes or services, and we do not have any request that he changed his name while at the jail."

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report.

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