JihadJane? To most she was just Colleen

The American woman, 46, faces terrorism charges. An old boyfriend 'can't believe it,' and a former acquaintance calls the suspect naive.

March 11, 2010|By Bob Drogin and Jenna Portnoy

Reporting from Pennsburg, Pa. — Colleen R. LaRose, the strawberry-haired suburban woman who is accused of volunteering for a terrorist plot in Europe, appeared to live a double life.

Her MySpace page is registered under "JihadJane." In the profile photo, only her mascara-caked eyes and thin arching eyebrows are visible behind a jet-black burka that covers her face and head.

She listed Islam as her religion, and "Palestine, Iraq, Chechna, Afghanistan," all sites of armed Islamic resistance, as her occupation. For a hometown, she wrote "Jannah," the Muslim analog to heaven or paradise.

Yet a former boyfriend, who shared an apartment with LaRose for nearly five years, said Wednesday that she never talked about international events, and that he was unaware of her Islamic faith or her alleged involvement in an extremist plot.

"I can't understand it. I can't believe it," Kurt Gorman told reporters outside his office in Richland Township, Pa. He called the case "crazy."

LaRose, 46, will be arraigned in federal court in Philadelphia on March 18 on charges of providing material support for terrorists and for plotting with others to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had depicted the prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog.

LaRose, who also used the name "Fatima LaRose," was arrested by the FBI on Oct. 15 and has been in custody since then. The unusual case became public Tuesday when a federal grand jury indictment was unsealed.

LaRose was born in Michigan but was raised and married twice in Texas, where her mother and sister lived. Her former husbands and family members could not be reached Wednesday.

Texas public records show LaRose was convicted of criminal trespass in Runnels County in 1985, and fined $338. She was jailed for four days in Tom Green County in 1997 for driving while intoxicated. She also was charged with passing a bad check, but the warrant was not served.

Gorman said they met in 2004 while he was on a business trip to Ennis, Texas. LaRose soon moved in with Gorman and his father in a four-bedroom apartment in a recently restored historic building in downtown Pennsburg, about 45 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

"She just seemed like a completely normal person," he said.

Gorman, 47, owns a company that builds radio broadcast equipment.

He described LaRose as "no rocket scientist," but said she was good-hearted. He said she had no job, hobbies or friends while in Pennsburg. For diversion, he said, she played computer games.

A friend of the couple said LaRose was always in the apartment taking care of Gorman's terminally ill father while he traveled on business. LaRose "wasn't conducting Al Qaeda meetings there," said the friend, who asked not to be identified late Wednesday. "Everything she did, she did online."

Gorman said LaRose abruptly packed her clothes and left without saying goodbye the day after his father's funeral on Aug. 22. He never heard from her again, he said.

According to federal prosecutors, LaRose traveled to Europe on Aug. 23 "with the intent to live and train with jihadists, and to find and kill" the Swedish cartoonist, Lars Vilks.

On Sept. 30, the indictment states, she wrote in an e-mail to an unidentified co-conspirator that it would be "an honour & great pleasure to die or kill" and pledged that "only death will stop me here that I am so close to the target!"

The indictment, Gorman told CNN, "doesn't sound like the person I knew. This doesn't seem like her personality. If you're a nice person taking care of an elderly man, that doesn't in my mind go with someone who wants to hurt someone else."

LaRose may have developed her political and religious views from studying websites, including one she listed on her MySpace page. Muslim leaders in the Pennsburg area said she never attended prayers at local mosques, and they knew nothing about her.

"The actions of a few fanatics make the whole [Muslim] community a target," said Dr. Mohammad Riaz, president of the Muslim Assn. of Lehigh Valley. "It's hard to imagine what was going on in her head, but it had nothing to do with Islam."

Robin Nelson, Gorman's office manager, called LaRose naive and the kind of person who could easily get wrapped up in something she didn't understand.

Neighbors who lived across the hall in Pennsburg described LaRose in harsher terms.

"She was mostly notorious for getting drunk and getting into fights," Eric Newell, who moved out of the building 18 months ago, said in a telephone interview. "There are a number of times when she would come home staggeringly drunk."

The MySpace profile for JihadJane could no longer be accessed Wednesday, but a cache of the page revealed some of her details. Some of her friends sent traditional Arabic greetings or shared quotes from the Koran.

Her last posting, dated June 25, 2009, could have come from a teenager. "I'm so bored, I want to scream!!," she wrote. But her mood, she added, was "blessed."

Times staff writers Robert Faturechi in Los Angeles and Tina Susman in New York contributed to this report.

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