tampabay.com

Wrong guy

Medical student Omer Choudhary and two classmates were wrongly singled out during 9/11 anniversary angst in 2002.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published September 10, 2006


It has been four years since Omer Choudhary spent 17 shoeless hours in a squad car along Alligator Alley’s mile marker 92.

It has been four years since “valid and reliable intelligence” — the suspicions of a Shoney’s customer — led a swarm of 100 law enforcement agents to Choudhary and his two classmates. While the world watched, the agents ripped into the men’s clothes, dented their cars and dissembled their electronics in what would be a fruitless search for explosives. Police removed the students’ shoes to discourage escape.

It has been four years since the agents realized Choudhary and his friends — Americans of Middle Eastern descent — were innocents tangled up in 9/11 anniversary angst. And it has been four years since those agents and the Shoney’s customer who wrote down the students’ car tags were publicly thanked by Gov. Jeb Bush for their vigilance.
That’s the one part of the nightmare that still troubles Choudhary.

“He (Bush) never called us to say he was sorry for the misunderstanding,” Chouhhary said last month from his home in Fresno, Calif.

The events began when the three medical students — Choudhary, Ayman Gheith and Kambiz Butt — stopped at a Shoney’s restaurant in Georgia for breakfast on their way to Larkin Community Hospital in Miami for training.

It was Sept. 12, 2002, a year and a day after the attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and retired nurse Eunice Stone was having breakfast at the restaurant with her son. She told police she overheard one of the students say, “If they are mourning Sept. 11, what will they think of Sept. 13?” Another student, according to Stone, asked, “Do you think we have enough to bring it down?” — to which another said he had “contacts” who would help.

The students then talked about going to Miami. Stone noted their car tags and passed the numbers on to police, who caught up with the men after midnight.

Choudhary, who was riding with Butt,  says he had asked his friends during breakfast if they thought he had enough money to bring his car down to Miami from New Jersey. He said Gheith offered to contact friends in New Jersey to help bring the car down.

“It was all just a misunderstanding, but I think it could have been handled better,” said Choudhary, now 27.
Choudhary never got his apology, nor thanks for his understanding of the misunderstanding. He hasn’t seen any compensation for the thousands of dollars in damage he and his friends estimate was done to their cars, clothes and belongings.

Yet Choudhary has moved on — almost. He has finished medical school and expects to begin a three-year residency in internal medicine in a few months. After that, he plans to specialize in gastroenterology. He married two years ago. His wife, Sara, is a dentist.

But he and his lawyer worry that there could still be a criminal charge hanging over his head.

“They’ve never contacted me to tell me it’s closed,” attorney David Kubiliun said. While he doesn’t anticipate that any charges will be filed, Kubiliun said it would be nice if Florida and Georgia authorities would close the case.

Officials with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in Florida and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation say they have turned over all their files to Georgia District Attorney Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s office says it has no charges on file.