Bomb suspect fires lawyer

The attorney had been hired by the Egyptian Embassy to defend the suspended USF student.

By KEVIN GRAHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published January 8, 2008

TAMPA - Ahmed Mohamed, the former college student facing federal explosives charges, no longer wants John Fitzgibbons as his defense attorney, according to court documents filed Monday.

Fitzgibbons was hired in October by Egyptian Embassy officials to represent the suspended University of South Florida student. He said in a motion to withdraw from the case that Mohamed refused to see him Sunday when Fitzgibbons arrived at the Falkenburg Road Jail for a meeting.

"I don't want you to represent me anymore," Mohamed, 26, stated in a note delivered to Fitzgibbons by jail officials, court records said.

Fitzgibbons declined to talk about the matter, and Egyptian Embassy officials - who are contributing to Mohamed's defense - did not return a call for comment. U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo has set a hearing for Wednesday to discuss the motion.

Mohamed and Youssef Megahed, 21, remain in jail awaiting trial on federal explosives charges. The two have been in custody since Aug. 4, when a sheriff's deputy stopped them near a South Carolina naval base for speeding. He searched their car when he became suspicious and found what experts described as incomplete pipe bombs in the vehicle's trunk.

Mohamed and Megahed have said they were merely on a road trip to visit South Carolina's beaches and traveling with sugar rockets.

In addition to a charge of illegally transporting explosive materials, Mohamed also faces a charge of demonstrating how to make an explosive device. Federal agents said Mohamed admitted to posting a YouTube video where he narrated how to turn a remote control toy into a detonator.

Agents said they found the video on a laptop computer in the car with the men.

Fitzgibbons is a former assistant U.S. attorney whose cases in private practice often draw national attention. He helped Debra Lafave, the former teacher who seduced a 14-year-old student, avoid jail.

He represented Lawrence Storer, a Thai restaurant owner accused of hitting and killing a man with his car after the man robbed him at gunpoint. A jury found Storer not guilty of manslaughter.

And he's representing former American Idol finalist Jessica Sierra, who was in court Monday after an arrest in Ybor City while on probation for a drug charge.

Reached by phone in Egypt, Mohamed's father, Abdel Latif Sherif Mohamed, referred questions to his son's attorney and hung up several times on a reporter. It was unclear whether he knew about Mohamed's note to Fitzgibbons.

Megahed's older brother, Yahia, said Fitzgibbons' motion to withdraw from the case came as a shock.

"That's a surprise to me," he said.

The Federal Public Defender's Office, which represents Youssef Megahed, declined to comment on Mohamed's note.

Yahia Megahed said his brother is doing well and that he is satisfied with his legal representation.

"We see him every day, and he's very happy with his attorney," Yahia Megahed said.

Charles Rose, who has no ties to the case and is an assistant professor at the Stetson University College of Law, said there could be several reasons for Mohamed's decision.

Among the possibilities for speculation, according to Rose, are that the defendant and attorney may disagree on a defense strategy or that there's a personality clash between the pair.

"This is all hypothetical," Rose said.

Whatever may cause the relationship between Mohamed and Fitzgibbons to end may well remain confidential, Rose said.

"A good defense attorney such as Mr. Fitzgibbons will never say anything," Rose said. "You will never know, unless the client were to say for some bizarre reason and broadcast it."

Times staff writer Abbie VanSickle contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or 813 226-3433.