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Group didn't bother us, neighbors say

Published June 24, 2006

MIAMI - They kept their faces hidden behind black ski masks and offered free karate classes to neighborhood teens in a converted sandwich store.

But neighbors say they didn't know much else about members of the secretive, close-knit group who moved into the nondescript building in Liberty City about eight months ago.

"They kept to themselves, and we kept to ourselves," said Amy Hosley, 50, who lives opposite the small, single-story, rust-colored building. Her only contact with group members was on the few occasions they knocked on her door to ask for water.

"They were very friendly. They would say 'Hi, how are you doing,' but that was about it," she said.

Until federal authorities indicted seven members of the group Thursday on terrorism charges, neighbors were largely unconcerned.

Early in the morning, men would arrive in cars. During the day, members in ski masks would give karate classes to a dozen or so children in the back yard. In the evenings, men would stand outside in a circle, apparently in prayer.

A man who claimed to be amember of the group, calling himself Brother Corey, appeared on CNN on Thursday night to deny the group had terrorist connections. He said the group, which calls itself Seas of David, "studied Allah and the worship of the regular Bible."

The group members called themselves soldiers but were peaceful and obeyed their own set of codes, Brother Corey told CNN. He said the group tried to set up a construction company and a restaurant.

Ron Johnson, 28, wearing an "I Don't Talk To The Police" T-shirt., said he didn't suspect the group was involved in any criminal activity.

Johnson said he learned a few words of Arabic from the men. "I learned all the bad words," he said, reciting one particularly vulgar word for female genitalia. He didn't know any members of the group by name. "I just called all of them Habib," he said, using the Arabic word for friend.

Neighbor Babalu Nesbitt, 67, a drummer from the Bahamas who collects cans on the streets for recycling, said they never removed their ski masks and avoided contact.

"They didn't want anyone to associate with them," he said.

"There were plenty of people like me saying, 'What are they doing? Who are they?' " he said. "But everybody was comfortable because they didn't understand what was going on. ... They thought it was a temple or something like that."

Standing outside a local barber shop, the Spot, on 15th Avenue, former Navy SEAL Christopher Johnson, 37, said he was equally baffled. Like many, he too spoke occasionally with the members. But conversation was limited to "positive things," like summer programs for kids.

Johnson, who said he knows a few things about martial arts, said he was concerned about some of the karate moves he saw being taught. "There were certain acts that you don't teach in civilian life," he said. "Movements that can take a person's life."

Only after hearing news of Friday's terrorist indictments did neighbors begin to doubt the intentions of the group.

"What kind of religion is that, blowing up buildings?" said Charmaine Ferguson, 39, a bus driver. "I think they chose this neighborhood because it's very poor. They were recruiting kids to brainwash them."

Liberty City is one of Miami-Dade County's most depressed districts, with low employment and a high crime rate. It used to be far worse, neighbors said, until community policing efforts cleared the streets of crack dealers five years ago.

Even so, a young man was gunned down in a drive-by shooting this week, only a block from the Seas of David building. Many local business owners carry weapons for protection.

Along 15th Avenue and the surrounding streets homes sell for $70,000. Many local businesses are boarded up. Only storefront churches thrive, with more than a dozen lining 15th Avenue.

"This whole area needs revitalization," said "Bishop" Charles Carty, 51, who founded the New Beginning Church of Deliverance of All Nations after he was shot in 1973. "There's no jobs here. It's just the churches holding this community together."

Local activist, musician and film-maker Leo Casino, 56, blamed the group's alleged violent aims on the lack of government investment in Miami's inner cities. "They are a product of this country," he said. "We have cut all the grants so people are forced into the dope game and crime game."

He wasn't surprised that the group failed to arouse local suspicion. "Around here nothing is strange. This is America. Welcome to the inner city."

[Last modified June 24, 2006, 06:56:52]

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