Deputy defended in student bomb case

By KEVIN GRAHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published January 9, 2008

TAMPA - Despite his repeated ethnically biased remarks, a South Carolina deputy legally initiated a traffic stop of two University of South Florida students facing trial on explosives charges, a federal prosecutor said in court records filed Tuesday.

In December, a defense attorney for Youssef Megahed filed a motion asking the court to throw out any evidence gathered from the traffic stop because Berkeley County sheriff's Deputy Lamar Blakely lacked probable cause to stop the vehicle. Megahed's attorney said that the car driven by Ahmed Mohamed near a South Carolina naval base on Aug. 4 was not speeding.

But Blakely reported that Megahed, 21, and Mohamed, 26, had been traveling 60 mph in a 45 mph zone on U.S. 176 near Goose Creek, S.C.

"He thus had a legitimate basis to stop their car, not knowing anything at that point in time as to their identities or backgrounds," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hoffer wrote in his response to the defense motion.

A camera mounted on the deputy's cruiser captured blunt remarks that Blakely made to his partner, referring to Megahed and Mohamed as members of the Taliban and "graduates of suicide bomber school."

"Those comments have nothing whatsoever to do with the legality of the initial traffic stop at issue," Hoffer said in court records.

Megahed's attorney also claimed the deputy questioned Megahed without advising him of his rights.

Megahed and Mohamed gave Blakely conflicting stories about their trip from Tampa to visit beaches along South Carolina's coast, Hoffer said.

Blakely reported driving behind the car as the two men "appeared to be very intent on looking back," Hoffer said. The car began to speed, and once Blakely noticed how fast it was going, he turned on his sirens.

Hoffer said that Mohamed drove at least a mile before stopping, even though it was safe for him to pull over sooner.

Approaching the car, Blakely saw Megahed disconnect wires from a computer and slam it shut, Hoffer said.

The deputy had decided to issue a warning citation before becoming more suspicious, Hoffer said. He asked if there was anything in the car he should know about, like guns or drugs.

Mohamed told him there were fuses and "homemade rockets" in the car. Blakely asked to search the car, and the men agreed.

Federal agents reported finding pipes stuffed with fertilizer, Karo syrup and kitty litter; bullets and fuses; a laptop with Internet searches about martyrdom, Hamas and Qassam rockets; and video instructions for turning a child's toy into a detonator.

"Blakely at no point used any coercive actions or words to intimidate or coerce Mohamed's consent," Hoffer said. "That consent permitted the search to go forward lawfully."