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The Agent Who Might Have Saved Hamid Hayat

For 35 years, James Wedick had been a star at the FBI. When his former colleagues prosecuted a suspected terrorist, he came to the side of the defense and was branded a traitor. Here`s what he wasn`t allowed to say in court.

May 28, 2006|Mark Arax

Before the wins and losses are tallied up and the war on terror goes down in the books as either wisdom or folly, it might be recalled what took place this spring on the 13th floor of the federal courthouse in Sacramento. There, in a perfectly dignified room, in front of prosecutors, defense attorneys and judge, a tall, gaunt man named James Wedick Jr. was fighting for a chance to testify, to tell jurors about the 35 years he spent in the FBI and how it came to be that he was standing before them not on the side of the U.S. government but next to two Pakistani Muslims, son and father, whose books and prayers and immigrant dreams were now being picked over in the first terrorism trial in California.

Wedick watched the prosecutor from Washington stand up and call him a hired gun for the defense and say that any criticisms he had about the investigation would only confuse the jury and waste the court's time. He wanted to answer back that he had been the most decorated FBI agent to ever work out of the state capital, and for years prosecutors, judges and juries had nothing but time to ponder the way he busted dirty state senators and mobsters and cracked open the biggest health scam in California history. Yet he could only sit and listen as the judge ruled that by the weight of legal precedence, he would have to be muzzled. In eight weeks of trial, 15 witnesses for the prosecution and seven witnesses for the defense took the stand, yet the one whose testimony might have changed everything never got to tell his story. He never got to trace his metamorphosis to a Sunday morning last June, when he woke up thinking he had seen all the absurdities that a life of crime fighting had to offer only to find the FBI videotape--the confession that would become the heart of the terrorism case--on his doorstep.

It had arrived with no small hype: Down the road on Highway 99, the feds had busted up an Al Qaeda sleeper cell in Lodi, a little farm town at the northern edge of the San Joaquin Valley that had gone from the "watermelon capital of the world" in the 1880s to the "Tokay grape capital of the world" in the 1920s to the "Zinfandel capital of the world" today. The community boasted 60 wineries, 36 tasting rooms, a Zinfest in May and its own appellation: Lodi-Woodbridge. Somehow burrowed into the 90,000 acres of grape fields that pleated the rich, flat loam of the Mokelumne River basin was a radical young Muslim carrying a prayer of jihad in his wallet.

He had just returned home to Lodi from a terrorist camp in the hills of his ancestral Pakistan. He had been trained there with Kalashnikov rifles and curved swords and target dummies wearing the faces of Bush and Rumsfeld. He was awaiting instructions, via a letter in his mailbox, to bomb hospitals and supermarkets in California's heartland. In the meantime, he was packing Bing cherries on the outskirts of town. The two imams at the small marigold mosque across the street from the Lodi Boys and Girls Club directed the sleeper cell at the behest of Osama bin Laden. They were building a multimillion-dollar school to spread the seeds of Islamic holy war to Pakistani immigrant children up and down the farm belt. If the whole story sounded too bizarre to be true, the 22-year-old jihadist and his 47-year-old father--the neighborhood ice cream man--had confessed to everything on camera.

At home in the Gold River suburbs of Sacramento, Jim Wedick agreed to study the FBI video as a favor to one of the defense attorneys. He was fully expecting to call the attorney back and advise him that son and father, guilty as charged, needed to strike a quick plea deal. It was hard to trump a confession, and in this instance the feds were holding not one confession but two. Even so, Wedick always had been the kind of investigator who needed to measure every bit of evidence for himself. So he stuck the video in his player and sat back on the couch to watch. The images were grainy, but he recognized the setting right off. It was the old polygraph room at the FBI's regional headquarters on the north side of the capital. He recognized several of the agents too. In the year since his retirement, they had become experts on counterterrorism. Now, two at a time, they began a five-hour interrogation that would crack a suicide bomber in the making.

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