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Suspicion arrives in Carolina suburbia

The USF students were arrested off the main route, but not in middle of nowhere.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writer
Published August 17, 2007


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photo
[Abbie Vansickle | Times]
The jail in Moncks Corner, S.C. where Youssef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed are being held.

GOOSE CREEK, S.C. - The mechanic and his wife were headed to their shop in the middle of the night when they saw the police cars, the floodlights and investigators wearing big marshmallow suits.

"It looked like a giant UFO had landed," said Tracy King, 46.

The two turned around and drove home.

The next day, the town of Goose Creek buzzed with the news: Two Florida college students of Middle Eastern descent had been accused of having pipe bombs in their car. Who were they? What was in that car? And most puzzling, what were tourists doing on Highway 176?

"It's definitely a way-back road," Mrs. King said.

"Most people wouldn't even think about coming that way," her husband added. "It's a direct line to the naval base, for what it's worth."

More than a week after the incident, Youssef Megahed, 21, and Ahmed Mohamed, 26, remain in jail in rural Moncks Corner.

The FBI seized the Megahed family computers and searched a Temple Terrace home - one connected to both Mohamed and Sami Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor once accused of funding terrorist organizations.

The Goose Creek mayor said Tuesday he has inside information that he can't discuss.

The FBI won't say what, if anything, it has on Megahed and Mohamed. But Wednesday, the agency released a statement reminding the public to withhold judgment, that the allegations could prove false.

Several Tampa lawyers said they'd never seen an FBI statement like it and speculated that the case may be weak. Perhaps the two students had been jailed for carrying nothing more dangerous than fireworks.

The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office adamantly disagreed with that on Thursday.

"We made the proper charges against these people," said Berkeley Capt. Rick Ollic. "We are continuing the investigation. These charges are appropriate."

High-profile attorney

Megahed's new defense attorney, Andy Savage, saw things differently.

"What has happened to these two young men would not happen to two Irish-Americans," Savage said.

Savage is widely known in Charleston for taking on high-profile cases, including enemy combatant Ali al-Marri, who is held at a nearby military brig. Savage characterized the city as a mostly white, conservative area where the crime rate is low and military ties are strong.

"Muslims are still strangers in that community," he said. "They're still viewed with some suspicion."

About the landscape

To get there, start in Charleston, the seaside city of colonial row houses where tourists in cotton-candy-colored clothes smile from carriages. Head east, past an intersection so curvy it's called the Antlers.

About 30 minutes out, it's Suburban Anywhere, USA.

Wal-Mart and Lowe's. Mattress stores and fast food joints. Subdivisions with names like Devon Forest and Liberty Hill Plantation. Goose Creek, population roughly 35,000.

Highway 176 slices through the city, but it's not on a beaten path to anywhere, the locals explain.

Take it east, you'll drive through the wooded acres of the Naval Weapons Station, then past the brig.

Take it west two hours, and you'll be in the capital, Columbia, though most people would take Interstate 26.

At first, a traffic stop

It was on that stretch, where subdivisions give way to Berkeley County countryside, that sheriff's Deputy Lamar Blakely clocked the young men going 60 mph in a 45 mph zone. He searched their car and called for a bomb team.

Both were arrested and taken to a county detention center in rural Moncks Corner. A prosecutor called them flight risks, and a judge set bail at $300,000 for Megahed and $500,000 for Mohamed.

Prosecutors say they are still trying to determine what the men were doing, where they were headed.

"That's the unusual part," said Frank Hunt, a spokesman for the Solicitor's Office. "They said they were going to North Carolina on the way to the beach. Well, that's not the way to North Carolina."

The FBI and the Sheriff's Office declined to comment on whether the materials had been tested. They cite a pending investigation, but Savage says they likely already have their answers.

"The federal government's resources are so great that 10 days later, they certainly know what the contraband was," he said.

The car had a Global Positioning System device, so investigators would have a record of all the men's movements, Savage said. Not to mention cell phone records.

Savage believes it may be an investigative strategy: Use a small infraction as an opportunity to scour every part of a man's life. He read aloud from a book by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Never Again, then paraphrased.

"If they spit on the sidewalk, detain them," Savage said.

Locals stirred up

But some in Goose Creek took comfort in the reaction by law enforcement.

The Kings did. From what they saw, the car looked like it was pointed away from the base. Still, better safe than sorry, they say.

"They did the right thing by stopping them," said Ken King, 45. "People around here are stirred up about it."

At City Hall, Mayor Michael J. Heitzler pulled out a map of Goose Creek. The big patch on it is the base, he said.

He doesn't believe the men were headed there.

"I don't think anybody came up with that perception except the media," he said. "That's a stretch, I think."

If Megahed and Mohamed were two white guys with fireworks, would they have been treated the same way?

Heitzler thinks that question is irrelevant.

"Do young, healthy Egyptian men share the American dream?" he asked. "We all profile, don't we? Yes, we do."

He gave an example: Say an elderly white woman is walking toward you. Would you have reason to fear? No, he said.

Say a red-haired young man is doing the same. That would give one more cause for concern, he said. It's simply a matter of using context clues to judge a situation.

"I don't see any problem at all," he said of law enforcement using similar judgment. "They need to be alert. They need to do the full job while they're on duty."

The mayor said the community is home to 42 ethnic groups and "probably that many religions."

Family visiting

Megahed's family plans to visit him today to bring him prayer books and a schedule of Muslim prayer times calculated for Moncks Corner.

"We're going to tell him we love him and we miss him in our house," said his father, Samir Megahed, 60, a retired engineer.

The last time they drove there, they felt out of place.

His daughter, Mariam Megahed, 18, felt uncomfortable when the family stopped for gas, he said. People were staring.

"There is no Muslim, there is no Arab, there is no Chinese, no Korean, no Mexican," Samir Megahed said. "Only white and black people."

Ronald Salaam, 50, knows what it's like to be in the minority. Black and Muslim, he lives in Goose Creek along Highway 176.

He's retired from the military and attends a mosque in Charleston.

He was home that Saturday and saw the floodlights and patrol cars at the arrest scene. He tried to check it out, but he couldn't see much.

"I think it was probably a misunderstanding," he said of the arrests. He squinted in the evening sun as he looked toward the highway. "Just people with fireworks."

It wasn't hard for him to see how it could happen - in Goose Creek, or anywhere, during these times.

"That could happen to anybody," he said. "That could happen to me."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 16, 2007, 23:37:38]


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