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Victim's Family Frustrated by Unsolved Blast at O.C. Arab Site

Crime: Brother of anti- discrimination activist slain in '85 doubts FBI will find the bomber.

October 06, 2002|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wheels of justice have turned slowly for Sami Odeh, and after 17 years of waiting, he is losing hope the FBI will ever solve his brother's slaying.

Alex Odeh died Oct. 11, 1985, after a bomb exploded as he opened the front door to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee headquarters in Santa Ana, where he served as West Coast chairman.

Authorities say they continue to chase leads in the case and that the pace has quickened since last year's terrorist attacks. Alex Odeh's name has come up repeatedly during meetings between U.S. law enforcement officials and national leaders of the Arab American group in Washington.

But there has been little for Odeh's family to hang their hopes on. Theirs has been a quest fueled by suspicion, rumor and attempts to squeeze meaning from vague FBI comments.

A man now serving a life term for the bombing death of a woman in Manhattan Beach, for instance, was mentioned as a possible suspect more than 15 years ago. But he has never been charged.

The man's wife was listed as a probable witness in Alex Odeh's killing. But she died of a heart attack several years ago.

Two other possible suspects live on the West Bank, Sami Odeh said he has been told. But he knows little else.

Last summer, the lead agents in the case traveled to Israel, but Odeh said they declined to tell him whether the trip was related to his brother's killing.

Frustrated by the lack of progress yet intrigued by the clues he has been left to piece together, Odeh wonders--in his darkest hours--whether his brother's case is being taken seriously anymore.

"For the past 17 years the FBI has told me that the case is still open and under investigation," said Sami Odeh, a real estate agent from Orange. "I find it very hard to believe that with all our resources, the killers haven't been brought to justice."

On the day of the bombing, Alex Odeh had gone to his second-floor East 17th Street office early to work on a speech he was going to give later that day at a Fountain Valley synagogue. The night before, he had appeared on a local nighttime news program where he called Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a man of peace.

The bomb, rigged to explode when the door opened, ripped apart the office and injured seven others in the building. Alex Odeh died two hours after the blast.

A Palestinian and Roman Catholic whose family had moved from Palestine to escape the violence, the 41-year-old was an outspoken opponent of Israeli policies against Palestinians. He led demonstrations in front of the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, where Arabs frequently clashed with members of the Jewish Defense League.

The protests had led to threats against Alex Odeh and his organization, authorities said at the time. Yet his family said he never openly worried for his safety.

Investigators said they believe it is likely that Alex Odeh wasn't even the intended target, that the bombing was a terrorist-style attack on the Arab committee.

Officials at the committee's office in Washington said little ground has been gained in the investigation over the years, but tracking the case remains a priority for them.

"It's an issue that continuously comes up when we sit down with them and they ask what's on our mind," said Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the committee. "We're frustrated, but there's not much we can do to shift the FBI into action."

Steven Berry, FBI spokesman in Washington, declined to comment about the investigation.

The investigation is being conducted by agents from the Los Angeles Joint Terrorist Task Force, which includes the FBI. Laura Bosley, FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles, said Alex Odeh's death "is a case that's being worked on." But she conceded there are few leads and no firm suspects.

What frustrates Sami Odeh and committee officials is that convicted bomber and former Jewish Defense League member Robert Manning emerged as a possible suspect about three years after the Santa Ana bombing. Federal sources told The Times in 1988 that Manning and three others, all living in Israel at the time, were involved in the killing.

The FBI has never publicly identified Manning as a suspect. Federal sources also said his wife, Rochelle Ida Manning, had a "peripheral role" in the bombing but, like her husband, was never a named suspect.

As the years have passed, Sami Odeh said his hopes are fading that those responsible for his brother's death will ever be brought to justice. "I try to think good about the FBI. I believe the two agents on the case have their hearts in the case. I want to believe my government," Odeh said. "But after 17 years of them telling me this is a top priority, well, it's getting harder to believe them."

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