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FBI investigating fatal blast at a San Bernardino County home as a hate crime

Ali Abdelhadi Mohd had returned to his vacant Yermo house to clean up anti-Arab and white-supremacist graffiti. He was killed in the explosion.

July 10, 2009|David Kelly

YERMO — Hadie Mohd last saw his father as he headed out to the family's vacated home to paint over anti-Arab and white supremacist graffiti scrawled across the walls inside.

"He said he would be back before sundown," Mohd said. "And he always kept his word."

But when sundown came, Ali Abdelhadi Mohd had not returned. About 9:45 p.m. on June 27, neighbors in this scruffy high-desert town heard an explosion they said sounded like a sonic boom. Flames engulfed the single-story home. When firefighters arrived, they found a horribly burned Mohd dead among the ruins.

"We can only hope he died quickly," Hadie Mohd said as he picked his way through the gray ashes and blackened appliances at the house Thursday. "It gives us peace to think that."

The fire, along with the graffiti and the earlier torching of a mosque on the property, has led the FBI to launch an investigation into whether the incident was a hate crime.

"Assuming he was the victim of a crime, we are looking into the possibility that the perpetrator was motivated by religious bias or hate," said Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman. "Based on complaints and information from the family, they have been targeted in the past. There are suspicions that their civil rights may have been violated."

Investigators from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department's arson and bomb unit have combed through the wreckage trying to determine what caused the blast and how Mohd died.

"We do know he was alive when the fire was burning because the autopsy showed soot and burning in his esophagus," said Arden Wiltshire, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Department. "We still don't know if it was a tragic accident or if it was intentional. Hopefully, the arson investigators will help us complete the picture."

She said Mohd took pictures of the graffiti but never notified deputies.

"If he had called we would have documented it and made an investigation," she said.

The family, which includes seven children, lived on a large lot along Yermo Road for the last four years. Life hasn't always been peaceful. They reported being insulted based on their Arab heritage, having their religion mocked and being threatened.

Ahmad Mohd, 14, said a group of children at his school routinely challenged him to fights, used racial epithets and told him, "Go home, Arab." His father complained to school officials, who suspended some of the students, but the harassment continued, Ahmad said.

The school superintendent was on vacation and could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Asmaa Mohd, 18, who wears a traditional Arab head covering called a hijab, reported being taunted with a racial slur as some youths tried to tear off her head covering.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights advocacy group, said talk radio and the Internet are full of what he called "hate speech" aimed at Muslims.

"I think in this case there is more than a sufficient basis to investigate the possibility of a hate crime," he said. "Whenever you have a history of bias and harassment like the burning of a mosque and hate graffiti, it would be irresponsible not to look into it as a hate crime. If it was, it would be a case of nationwide significance."

Ali Abdelhadi Mohd, 51, came to the United States from Amman, Jordan, in the 1970s, intending to study engineering. But life took a different turn. His faith was his passion, and his family said he held a moderate view of Islam.

"He was strict but within reason. He wanted us to have fun but said we should spend as much time praying as we did having fun," Mohd said. "He got mosques started in Riverside, Indio and San Diego."

The family eventually moved from Lynwood to Yermo, outside Barstow, to have some land and space. Mohd built a brick mosque on their property. In 2007, it was burned down along with two other buildings in town.

Deputies arrested Loren Jessie Clark and Brian Martin in connection with the fires, but no hate crimes were alleged. Clark was 18 and Martin was 16.

The steady drumbeat of threats and harassment pushed Mohd to move his family to Victorville, a bigger city an hour away with a more diverse population.

"My dad didn't want my brothers and sisters to constantly have to deal with that," Mohd said.

The family left last month, intending to rent out their Yermo house.

But it immediately attracted unwelcome guests. Within a week, the home was vandalized, its walls covered with swastikas, racist graffiti and anti-Arab slurs, the family said.

"My dad didn't tell the police but I assume he took the pictures to show them," his son said.

Mohd left Victorville at 2 p.m. that day to buy paint at Home Depot to cover the graffiti. He never returned.

Judy Smith, who lives in the hardscrabble neighborhood where the incident occurred, said she heard the blast.

She said fires are not uncommon in the area, pointing to the burned home across the street and another less than a block away. "Any place that is empty is destroyed in a week," she said.

Olga Ramirez called the fire department the night of the blaze.

"I was feeling OK about this place, but now I'm scared," she said, as her two dogs howled behind a chain fence. "I don't want to be out at night anymore. We are thinking about maybe moving to San Bernardino."

--

david.kelly@latimes.com

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