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A down-and-out terrorism suspect

It's alarming, say JFK plot investigators, that a man of meager means made such progress.

June 04, 2007|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — He had little money, a limited education, few friends and frayed relations with his family. By all appearances, Russell Defreitas was "a pretty sad character" at age 63, in the words of one law enforcement official.

And yet the U.S. citizen from Guyana managed to make significant headway toward launching a terrorist attack on John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, officials said.

Defreitas, a retired JFK cargo worker, allegedly made surveillance tapes of airport facilities. He made trips to Guyana and Trinidad, some of them paid for by an accomplice, authorities said. And, they said, he managed in a relatively short time to find Muslim extremists in Guyana and Trinidad apparently eager to help.

U.S. law enforcement officials said Defreitas was nowhere near being capable of mounting an attack. He didn't have explosives, money or an executable plan. But one of the most alarming aspects of the case is that a man of such meager means made as much progress as he did, authorities said.

"It is a bit worrisome when someone like this, who is a bit washed up, is able to go out and solicit funding and the blessing of others who are more organized and experienced," said a Justice Department official familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is a bit frightening."

Defreitas was one of four men charged in the case, which was announced by federal law enforcement officials Saturday. Defreitas was arrested at a Brooklyn diner Friday night; two alleged accomplices are in custody in Trinidad and are expected to be extradited to the United States; and another is said to be at large in Trinidad.

Authorities said others might be charged. The criminal complaint unsealed Saturday connects at least six unnamed individuals -- most of them in Guyana, which neighbors Venezuela, or Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela -- to the alleged plot. Defreitas is accused of being the architect and catalyst, a disgruntled Muslim who, officials said, sought support for a plan to blow up buildings, fuel tanks and pipelines at JFK.

In some ways, the case may come down to whether jurors believe Defreitas was a menace. His court-appointed attorney, Andrew Carter, said in a telephone interview Sunday, "Even from the government perspective, [Defreitas] didn't have any means of carrying out this stuff they were allegedly trying to do."

Carter reiterated comments he made during Defreitas' arraignment Saturday, saying, "There is more to the story," and suggesting that one of Defreitas' main lines of defense could be that the government's case was based largely on a paid FBI informant with drug-trafficking convictions who may be angling for a more lenient sentence.

"There is a government source involved in a lot of this," Carter said.

Asked whether Defreitas was a terrorist who posed a danger to the public, Carter said, "I don't believe so," and vowed to "vigorously defend him."

Defreitas was portrayed in news accounts Sunday as a lonely figure, a man who made money selling books on street corners and shipping broken air-conditioning parts to Guyana. He is divorced and estranged from his two children, according to the reports.

"People around here never see that man," said a Trinidadian woman who runs a 99-cent store next to his apartment building on Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn. "I'm right here 15 years.... The people in the building never see the man, so where did he come from?"

Her shop caters to people in the neighborhood who stop by for toothpaste, toy water guns and hair gel. The woman, who did not want to be named, said the local Caribbean community was close-knit so it was strange that no one she knew remembered Defreitas, not even residents in his building.

The neighborhood is largely populated by African Americans, Latinos and immigrants from the West Indies.

On Rockaway Avenue, employees at four grocery stores, a check-cashing business and Jay's West Indian Restaurant, which serves oxtail and curried goat dishes, said they had no idea who he was. One screamed at a reporter: "This is harassment. I tell everyone, I did not know that man!"

Defreitas' building is a faded four-story row house with a broken intercom that buzzes incessantly. Neighbors said the building was known to house drug addicts. Knocks on his door and others in the building went unanswered Sunday.

A bail hearing for Defreitas is scheduled for Wednesday, his lawyer said. Law enforcement officials said the government of Trinidad and Tobago was cooperating with U.S. authorities, who are seeking extradition of the two men in custody there.

One of the suspects, Abdul Kadir, a former member of Guyana's parliament, is portrayed in the complaint as a key figure, helping to pay for Defreitas' trips and making efforts to enlist financial and logistical support for the alleged plot from Jamaat al Muslimeen, an Islamic militant group in Trinidad.

Kadir's wife, Isha, said in a CNN interview Sunday from Linden, Guyana, that she was shocked by the allegations.

"You know, my husband -- we are Muslims for 33 years," she said, according to a CNN transcript. "And no way, at no time we were ever involved in anything of plots of bombing or any plots against America. We are not a part of that. We have family -- both of us -- in America."

greg.miller@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Erika Hayasaki in New York contributed to this report.

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