He was born in Brooklyn. He joined a Latino gang in Chicago, where he was involved in a killing as a teenager. He worked at a hotel in Florida, where he was sent to prison after a road-rage shooting incident. And now the menacing 31-year-old man who calls himself Abdullah al Muhajir is the first accused al Qaeda operative with "Jose" tattooed to his right arm.
The transformation of a chubby Catholic boy named Jose Padilla into an Islamic terrorist suspected of plotting to unleash a "dirty bomb" on an American city is the mystery of the moment. There were bits and pieces of information yesterday the instantly notorious mug shot, police records, vague memories from neighbors but not much more. No one could explain why a Puerto Rican kid who spent much of his adolescence in juvenile hall ended up researching radiological dispersion devices and learning how to wire explosives in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He apparently converted to Islam in or after prison. He apparently completed a substance abuse course. He apparently married an Egyptian woman and left the country. But this much is definite: He was arrested May 8 after getting off a flight from Pakistan at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, and he is now in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.
"Jose was a nice kid," said Nelly Ojeda, a neighbor in Chicago. "He was always in the house."
At the Lake Park Gardens condominium complex in Plantation, Fla., there was a plaque quoting Scripture on his mother's door: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." There was also a statue of a cherub reclining, two bows decorated with American flag patterns, and a handwritten note: "Please leave this family in peace." Before the news of America's newest "enemy combatant" broke yesterday morning, Shari Santos saw the suspect's mother walking her pet Chihuahua. His stepfather asked Alice Beckett if she wanted some soup.
"I said: 'not too spicy,' " recalled Beckett, 91, the treasurer of the Lake Park Gardens condo association. "I'm flabbergasted."
When Jose was 4, his mother, Estela Ortega, moved him to West Chicago, where they lived in a modest rowhouse they shared with two other families; his father apparently died when he was young. Neighbors recalled that Jose's nickname was "Pucho," or pudgy, and that he played softball in the streets.
But law enforcement sources say he ended up pursuing less benign activities. He joined the Latin Kings, a street gang that used to promote itself as a nonviolent source of empowerment for young Latinos before dozens of its leaders were sent to jail. The sources also say he was involved in a gangland murder when he was only 13.
His juvenile record is under seal, but FBI officials said he was arrested five times in Chicago for assault and other crimes from 1985 until 1991. He spent several years in juvenile jail; he last attended a public school for troubled children when he was 15.
In 1991, he moved to Florida, where he was living with a girlfriend and working at hotels for $200 a week according to a successful worker's compensation claim that netted him an additional $5 a week and driving a car with tinted windows.
On the afternoon of Oct. 8, 1991, he got in a traffic accident in Sunrise, showed off a silver .38-caliber revolver, then drove away, according to a police report. When the other driver followed to try to take down his license, Padilla shot at his vehicle from about 25 feet away. The other driver gave his tag number to the police, who surprised him that night when he returned to his girlfriend's apartment in Lauderhill. "He went for his gun, but we convinced him to comply," recalled Sunrise police Lt. Charles Vitale.
That's just about all Vitale remembers about him. The complaint says he was 5-foot-10, 170 pounds. He requested an attorney. When he went to prison, he listed his religion as Catholic. While in jail, he assaulted a sheriff's deputy. After a year in prison, he was arrested nearly a dozen times up to 1997 on traffic offenses, including speeding and driving with a revoked license. Once, while driving his girlfriend's Toyota Tercel, he gave his name as Jose Alicea, and presented a driver's license in that name. But never Abdullah al Muhajir.
"I'm shocked that the person I encountered 10 years ago was actually the person that did this," Vitale said.
But Padilla's former landlady, Norma Leon, told the Chicago Sun-Times that in recent years, his mother complained that he had left the country to join a cult. "She was scared for him," Leon said.
Victor Olds, a former prosecutor who is representing Estela Ortega, said she appeared before a grand jury two weeks ago to discuss her son. He said she had been in contact with him before his arrest, but not since.
Staff writers Robert E. Pierre and Manuel Roig-Franzia, researcher Margot Williams and correspondents Catherine Skipp and Christine Haughney contributed to this report.www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A28618-2002Jun10.htmlE-mail this article