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Attack suspects blended into suburbia

To neighbors in Vero Beach, they seemed so normal, despite their foreign origins and customs.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001

To neighbors in Vero Beach, they seemed so normal, despite their foreign origins and customs.

VERO BEACH -- Their children played Nintendo with the neighbors' children and invited them over for slumber parties and Middle Eastern food. They took shopping trips to Wal-Mart and the mall and sometimes held small backyard get-togethers. They sent their children to local schools, drove minivans, kept their homes and yards tidy.

The families of four Middle Eastern men being investigated in Tuesday's attacks on New York and Washington, two of whom went missing over a week ago, had ensconced themselves in the predictability and safety of suburban neighborhoods in this city halfway between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral.

And as they watch TV footage of the carnage, their neighbors and friends are struggling to balance their anger at the violence with their desire to be fair to people who had seemed much like them.

"How could anyone come over here and live the lifestyle, and then . . ." said Rick Poley, his voice trailing off. "That angers me."

Poley lives across the street from a lime-green stucco house, a Welcome wreath on the front door, searched by federal agents before dawn Wednesday.

The man of the house hasn't been seen for more than a week, but his wife and children remained at the home most of Thursday. Records and neighbors identified him as Alrayani Hadi Mohammed, 41. Poley's grandchildren played with this three children.

Meanwhile, the FBI announced it was searching for another Vero Beach man, Amer Kamfar, 41, who had rented a house with his wife and three children in a nearby subdivision.

A neighbor, Walter R. Reed, a retired airline pilot, said Kamfar and his family moved in eight months ago and moved out about 10 days ago. They had kept to themselves mostly, although their children played with other children in the neighborhood.

On Wednesday, he said, FBI agents came to his house and asked questions about his neighbor, then asked him to identify a photo of him. He did.

Kamfar wore the uniform of pilots training at FlightSafety Academy, a Vero Beach school that trains commercial airline pilots, he said.

"It's absolutely unbelievable," Reed said Thursday.

In a third Vero Beach neighborhood, Treasure Trails, authorities focused on two other men, Andan Bukhari and Abdul Al-Omari.

Raymond DeFossez found it hard to believe. His son, 10-year-old Cody, had become good friends with the Bukhari and Al-Omari children, and played video games with them at their homes.

Both men had told him they were Saudi Airline pilots training at Flight-Safety, about a mile away. He saw them frequently, and occasionally socialized with Bukhari at his home.

Bukhari's brother, Ameer Bukhari, also a student at FlightSafety, was killed in a mid-air collision over St. Lucie last year, and Bukhari had told him they planned to sue, DeFossez said.

"They didn't stick out. They blended in well," said Wayne Meliti, who lives across the street from the Bukhari and Al-Omari homes.

All four families settled in quiet suburban enclaves of $100,000 homes and scooter-strewn driveways, places where crime rarely visits and the largest offense is an unkempt yard.

In ways they were different: The wives cloaked themselves in veils and robes and rarely were seen. Most neighbors could not recollect their names.

Poley recalled seeing his neighbor carry a large bong pipe, for smoking tobacco, across the street to another Arab neighbor's home. They knelt to pray five times a day.

But FlightSafety trains many international students, including pilots from Saudi Arabia, and they frequently rent homes in nearby neighborhoods for their 12 to 18 month stays.

Two weeks ago, Mrs. Bukhari and her children returned to Saudi Arabia, neighbors said, and Mrs. Alomari and her children followed the next day.

Mr. Al-Omari moved in with Mr. Bukhari for about a week, then disappeared, neighbors said.

Wednesday morning, FBI agents searched the homes of all four families and took Bukhari into custody as a witness. Authorities say he is cooperating.

Only the Mohammed home remained occupied Thursday. Mrs. Mohammed was inside with her three children, front door closed and the window blinds shut tight against the TV camera outside. She refused to open her door to detectives in the morning. FBI agents interviewed neighbors.

"It just eats me up," Poley said as he stood outside in the rain. "I want to knock on that lady's door so bad and point-blank just ask her, "What really happened? What do you know?'

"You don't know whether to bring bread or be angry."

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