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He ended up in jail, instead of playing soccer

Published April 9, 2006

[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
When he was a boy growing up in Morocco, all Nabil Mouad wanted to do was play soccer for an American univeristy. Now 20, he sits in a Hillsborough jail cell, accused of making terrorist-like threats to "blow up'" the USF soccer coach because he refused to let him try out for the team. Mouad has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Ahmed Bedier of CAIR says Mouad shouldn't be in jail, but in a mental hospital. But police say it's hard to ignore a guy who threatens to kill someone, saying "I'm from Morocco, and you better watch out.''

TAMPA - When he's not in a cell as wide as he is tall, Nabil Mouad uses one of his two free hours a day playing the only sport available in jail, basketball. All the while, he wishes he could play soccer, which was his life, his dream, his goal.

"When I have a problem," he said, "I play soccer and I feel free."

But soccer is also in part how Mouad, a 20-year-old Moroccan in the United States illegally, ended up in an orange jail suit, pink plastic slippers and constraining cuffs in a Falkenburg Road Jail interview room, explaining how his passion for the sport mixed with mental illness and led to a bizarre clash with the University of South Florida soccer coach.

Locked down 22 hours a day with no possessions besides a Koran and a bedsheet to kneel on for prayer, Mouad has been isolated for his own protection. In the minds of other inmates, his Muslim faith and the report that he threatened to "blow up" the coach add up to terrorist - about as popular as a child molester behind bars, jail Capt. Tom Bliss said.

Mental health workers say Mouad's story is common: A man suffering from schizophrenia has no family support, stops taking his pills and gets entangled in the justice system. But what makes him different, they say, is his racial and religious background in the post-9/11 world, where no threat can afford to be taken lightly. His advocates wonder if jail is really where he belongs.

"It's just sad that he would be treated as some sort of criminal or terrorist," said Ahmed Bedier, director of the Tampa branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

In jail, Mouad has nothing but time to reflect.

"I shouldn't have been in this situation," Mouad said. "It's a lesson not to go someplace where I know nobody."


He asked USF soccer coaches for a tryout on the advice of a former team player. He tried to entice them with a Massachusetts high school game tape that showcased his skills as a midfielder.

Coaches told him to enroll at USF first.

He came back again and again. Coaches couldn't let him tryout. He asked for his tape back. They didn't have it.

He came back Feb. 6. Two weeks earlier, police had taken him to a Tampa mental health center where he spent nine days. He wasn't taking his prescriptions, he said.

According to Mouad and police reports, Mouad became angry after head coach George Kiefer told him the tape was lost. Mouad admits to calling Kiefer a "Jew" and saying "Watch out I'm from Morocco."

To Mouad, the tape was a passport to a soccer roster. But it also held great sentimental value. He called it "souvenir" in his broken English, an appropriate label for the memories it held of his time in Boston - when his nomadic life was as stable as it ever was.

Eventually, Mouad walked out of the athletic department, where USF police were waiting.

Kiefer didn't respond to requests for comment. But his account appears in sworn police statements.

"Once Nabil saw me down the hall, he began chasing me around the office and stating he is Moroccan and that he will blow me up and I better watch it," Kiefer said. "I kept moving in and out of cubicles to stay away from him as I feared he may (have) hid something in him. Please understand this is the second time in which we have called the police for protection because of Nabil. The first time he stated that we suck as a team and would never win. He then screamed he is a Muslim and that I better watch my back."

Mouad says he didn't use the words "blow up."

He was charged with threatening to discharge a destructive device and assault on a specified official or employee. He is scheduled to be in Hillsborough Circuit Court April 18. He also faces an immigration hearing and will likely be deported.


Mouad once played on the junior team of Morocco's national soccer club, Raja Casablanca. At 14, his mother sent him to the United States, where his brother lived. He hoped to play soccer.

"I thought it'd be much better here," he said.

He came on a student visa, made it to Aurora, Colo., and moved in with his parents' friends. Things didn't work out. Four months later he was in Los Angeles, then Boston, where he lived with a distant relative. Quincy High School soccer coach Kevin Orcutt met him in August 2001.

Mouad wanted to join the team, but he wasn't enrolled in school and didn't know how to get a physical exam, so the coach helped him.

The doctor told him the teen had tuberculosis. A few of Mouad's lower vertebrae bones had been snapped and fused together. The ancient injuries were a mystery, Orcutt said.

School went fine until Sept. 11, when planes from nearby Logan International Airport crashed into the World Trade Center, reverberating especially close. Suddenly, Mouad's Moroccan roommate, vanished.

The teen had no place to stay, so the coach - a single father with two kids - took him in.

"He's a nice kid," Orcutt said. "You felt bad because here's a 15-year-old who didn't have anybody. He latched onto our kids. It wasn't just Arab kids, it was all our kids."

Soon, Mouad bounced around foster homes. In November 2001, Orcutt said, the Immigration and Naturalization Service deported him.

But it wasn't the last Orcutt heard from him. He called at least five times, begging him to adopt him.

A year and a half later, Mouad surprised Orcutt by showing up on his soccer field. Mouad said he persuaded his mother to send him back using a still-valid visa.

He told his old coach he was going to Florida to play soccer. He mentioned he was taking medicine for schizophrenia. Orcutt told him to finish high school and get to college, where he could play. Mouad never understood.

"I don't doubt there's something wrong with him mentally. It needs to be addressed," Orcutt said. "He's a little boy with a screwed up mind."


In Tampa in 2003, Mouad moved around, living with people he met playing pickup soccer.

"The only thing he enjoys in life is playing soccer," said Mustapha Lahrach, a Moroccan friend he found on the fields.

They often used the Internet at the USF library to look up Mouad's old team's soccer scores.

Mouad repeatedly spent $200 on cleats he didn't need. He bought about 30 soccer jerseys with money from a job at a BP station.

It was there, friends say, they saw him strangely rocking himself back and forth.

In March 2004, friends noticed Mouad hallucinating. During episodes, he told people he saw Jesus, enlarged heads and wolves. Customers, who may or may not have been real, gave him a "hard time."

"I started having thoughts people were trying to kill me," he said.

Friends took him to the Mental Health Care center. It took him five months to bounce back, friends said. He decided to study for his GED, seeing education as the path back to the soccer field.

But pressure mounted. Mouad couldn't concentrate. He stopped taking his pills.

In January, police put him in a mental facility after a confrontation at the store where he worked.

It was the second time he had visited the MHC center on 22nd Street in a short period of time, a discharge summary said. Inside, Mouad needed to be restrained, had paranoid thoughts and was a potential threat to others. With medication, he improved over nine days and showed no suicidal or homicidal behavior, the summary said.

But he didn't think anything was wrong, psychiatrist Yvonne Ekonomoa wrote.

She said his prognosis depended on him taking medication and following up. If he didn't, she said, he would need to be rehospitalized and could be a "chronic risk" of harming himself or others.

Mouad was released Jan. 24. Two weeks later, he was off his pills and back at USF - for the last time.

It was tragic timing, concerned friends say. They had bought him a plane ticket back to Morocco two days before his arrest.


"I'm still trying to figure out why he's in jail," said Bedier, of CAIR. "He has a serious history of mental illness. He's been in local mental health facilities. He was Baker Acted. Law enforcement should have known the type of person they're dealing with.

"In these days," Bedier said, "It's easy to convict someone on this because he is a Muslim Arab."

USF police Sgt. Mike Klingebiel declined to say much about the case. He said his department is careful with the mentally ill. He did say Mouad broke two laws.

"It was a probable cause arrest," he said.

USF officers don't have the ability to check on mental health history while responding, he said. But Tampa police officers can, using their patrol car computers. Generally, TPD spokeswoman Laura McElroy said, officers take people with documented mental health histories who make verbal threats to mental health facilities.

The last option should be jail, said Rick Wagner, who co-chairs a committee at Mental Health Care Inc., which trains law enforcement how to handle the mentally ill. To Wagner, USF police seemed to take the conservative approach.

"Not being there, you don't know how serious his threat was," Wagner said. "But if a person looked serious enough, I guess it comes down to how fearful the person, who had the threat, was."

Mary Zdanowicz, executive director the Treatment Advocacy Center of Arlington, Va., said the potential for violence from schizophrenic patients needs to be taken seriously.

But the national nonprofit thinks proper treatment, not jail, is the answer. That can be a problem, though, for people like Mouad who have no support system to keep them on their medication.

"We always try to refer them to other agencies and connect them to other resources," said Sandra Tabor, MHC spokeswoman. But they can't force treatment down someone's throat.


"I think I'm normal," Mouad said during his jail interview. "I don't need the medication."

He takes four pills in jail, he said, and has been evaluated by two psychiatrists.

During his interview, Mouad was lucid about his history but mixed up timelines of his USF visits. "Just one second," he said at one point. "It's a long time."

While he largely appeared normal, certain statements seemed strange.

"I'm sure he's real," he said.

He has the phone number for "Andrea," the "Princess of the United States," who lives in Michigan. Jay Leno held up a caricature of him once on the Tonight Show. He told him to go to Michigan.


If he had received his highlight tape back, he said, he might have headed to Michigan, where he would have began chasing his dream again.

"It can get hard. I'm not in good circumstances. One day it'll get better," Lahrach, 25, recalled his friend saying over and over when he was free.

He always kept his mind focused on one thing:

"One day, I'm going to be a professional soccer player."

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or

[Last modified April 9, 2006, 18:15:04]

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