September 11 link to deadly Tennessee crash?

MEMPHIS, Tennessee (AP) -- Shortly before 1 a.m. last Sunday, witnesses saw flames erupt from the back seat of a 1992 Acura Legend as it crawled along a two-lane road skirting farm fields in the little Tennessee town of Piperton.

The driver breathed in the flames, her lungs searing, as the car veered off the road and came to rest against a utility pole near the Mississippi state line. There were no skid marks or furrows in the grass to indicate the driver had hit the brakes.

A witness rushed up and pulled open the car door, but the driver was not moving. She appeared to be already dead. When the first volunteer firefighters arrived, the car was engulfed in flames.

From the very beginning, it didn't look right, said Steve Kellett, chief of the Piperton Volunteer Fire Department.

The car had been moving too slowly for the accident to cause much damage. The wooden pole was barely dented. The radiator was pushed in a few inches, but the engine block was undamaged. Most important, the gas tank had not ruptured. The cardboard packaging for a replacement headlamp in the trunk was barely scorched.

What could have caused a fire so severe that it cooked the passenger compartment of the sedan down to the frame, burned the driver's arms and legs off, and left her charred beyond recognition? If someone had been trying to make this death look like an accident, they had done a lousy job.

Police began investigating the death as a homicide, though they have not ruled out suicide. The mystery deepened the next day when dental records identified the victim as Katherine Smith, 49, a state driver's license examiner.

Smith had been scheduled to be arraigned last Monday on federal charges of helping five Middle Eastern men from New York obtain fraudulent Tennessee driver's licenses.

One of the men, authorities say, drove from New York to Memphis on September 11 -- the day of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. And one of them, at the time of his arrest, was carrying in his wallet a pass to the trade center dated September 5.

Was this a series of bizarre coincidences?

"The possibility of a really interesting story exists here," FBI Agent George W. Bolds said last week, brushing soot from his hands as he walked away from the charred vehicle impounded in a garage. Then again, he said, "it could turn out to be a whole lot less than people expect."

Woman of modest means

On the morning of February 5, authorities say, a gray Dodge Durango and a white Toyota Avalon arrived in Memphis from New York and parked outside the motor vehicles office. Inside the cars sat six Middle Eastern men.

Tennessee is one of four states not requiring a Social Security number to get a license, and many people carry utility bills as proof of residence.

Perhaps the men saw Smith as she arrived in her blue blazer and gray slacks.
Shortly after she showed up for work, a man from the Toyota, Khaled Odtllah, a native of Jerusalem, joined the morning rush into the building. According to an FBI affidavit, he was clutching four signed driver's license applications.

Katherine Smith was a woman of modest means. She had a couple hundred dollars in a credit union account, a couple hundred more than that in checking, according to court records. She had a 1999 Ford Escort with a $10,000 lien and the Acura.

She and her daughter shared a one-story home in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in the shadow of Memphis' Liberty Bowl stadium -- a place where police warn outsiders not to be after dark. The neat little house is worth $65,000; Smith owed $55,000 on it.

She had worked for mental health agencies before joining the motor vehicle division in 1992. She was earning just over $23,000.

Neighbors say they hardly saw the woman because she was working all the time. After hours, she worked taking care of an elderly woman.

"She worked day and night," says Peola Wright, who lives two doors down. She called Smith a nice lady who sang in the church choir and tried to get neighbors to attend services.

The neighborhood is a few miles from where Khaled Odtllah lived, but it seems a world away.

According to records, Odtllah's last address was The Grove, a gated community in the Memphis suburb of Cordova, with swimming pools, tennis courts and spas. A sign out front boasts a first place award in 2000 for beautification.

Police say Odtllah came to the United States about 13 years ago from Jerusalem and had been in Tennessee for about 21/2 years.

Smith later told officials she met Odtllah at his gas station. He sold her the Acura, which was still in Odtllah's name when Smith died.

FBI was waiting

Somewhere along the line, police say, Smith and Odtllah became business partners.

As an examiner in an office processing 300 to 400 driver's license applicants each day, Smith screened applicants at a front counter and gave written and road tests.

On the applications Odtllah was carrying on February 5, each man listed as his address 2840 Morning Lake Drive, in another gated community just outside Memphis. None of the men had checked the application's organ donor box.

At motor vehicles, the applications were approved and entered into the computer system. When Odtllah walked outside, the FBI was waiting for him.

Agents in New York had received a tip that the men would be traveling to Memphis that day, and the bureau's agents in Tennessee had staked out Smith's home and the motor vehicle office. When Odtllah and the others pulled out of the parking lot, agents flashed blue lights and pulled them over.

With Odtllah, police found Mostafa Said Abou-Shahi, Mohammed Fares, Sakher Hammad and his cousin Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad. An unnamed juvenile was also taken into custody.

A few months ago, the contents of Sakher Hammad's wallet would have seemed innocuous: Two video rental cards; two major credit cards; a card designating him a "charter member" of Team Ford Racing; a New York plumber's business card.
And a pass, dated 09/05/01 that gave him access to the lower basement of One World Trade Center.

Shown a photocopy, New York City Port Authority officials said the pass looked authentic, but they couldn't be certain without seeing the original.

Authorities say Sakher Hammad told them he is plumber, and that he and his cousin were in the tower to work on the sprinkler system. New York authorities have no record of a plumber's license for either cousin.

A business card in Sakher Hammad's wallet was for a Magic Plumbing & Heating Inc. in Brooklyn. It advertises "custom kitchens, bathrooms, water heaters, boilers, repiping" -- generally residential in nature.

A call to the business produced only a full voice-mailbox for someone named "Rocky." Using a reverse telephone directory, the AP found a list of phone numbers at the company's street address, all of them for individuals, among them Sakher Hammad.

Hammad's wallet also held courtesy cards from the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the Detectives' Endowment Association of New York. The latter bears the inscription, "In memory of those who lost their lives on 9-11-01."

It is adorned with a fluttering American flag, a police badge and a picture of the twin towers.

When Smith was arrested, authorities say she admitted helping Odtllah obtain licenses for "cousins" on a half-dozen occasions in the past year. An FBI agent later testified that Odtllah was charging up to $1,200 each to help people get their new identities.

Authorities say the men arrested with Odtllah admitted being in the country illegally.

Fire intentionally set

The day Smith was to appear in court, her car sat in an FBI garage in Memphis, the champagne finish bubbled and streaked with trails of melted rubber window stripping. The upholstery was burned away. Police couldn't even tell if Smith had been wearing a seat belt.

However, they had found a residue of gasoline on her body. The fire, the FBI determined, was intentionally set.

Bolds, the FBI agent, wondered how someone who was conscious could have stayed in the burning car. "If the car is on fire, you're going to stop in the middle of the highway if you have to, to get out," he said.

On Wednesday, Abou-Shahi, Fares and Abdelmuhsen Hammad appeared in court wearing blue windbreakers provided by the court. They face charges of conspiring to obtain licenses with false information. Odtllah and Sakher Hammad had appeared in court Monday.
Court records indicate that another man, Omar Khayata, 20, had also applied for a license February 5, using the same address. But he was not charged, and officials would not say whether he was the juvenile mentioned in the affidavit.

Lawyers for the defendants argued that their clients were being held only because of their ethnicity. "They seem to be trying to tie this to September 11," said Clifton Harviel Jr., who represented Abou-Shahin.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza replied that each man had participated in a conspiracy intended to acquire a "completely false and untraceable identity." Their motivation, he said, could be "further criminal activity."

In the wake of September 11, there have been crackdowns on illegally obtained driver's licenses elsewhere. Several of the September 11 hijackers had illegally obtained licenses in Virginia.

In denying bond for the five, federal magistrates cited the men's tenuous connections to the community and strong ties to other countries.

Court papers show Odtllah has a wife, a 2-year-old son, a mother and 10 siblings, all living in Jerusalem. Officials say he has "traveled extensively across the U.S. in the last few years."

A magistrate noted Sakher Hammad, "has no ties whatsoever to this community. He has substantial ties to Jordan or Gaza, where his mother lives. He has had less than stable employment ... and a cooperating witness has disappeared under suspicious circumstances."

Of the local telephone numbers listed on the license applications, three were out of service, and one was a fax.

When bond was denied, Fares put his head in his hands and wiped his eyes. The others showed no reaction.

Outside Smith's home, a row of red artificial flowers planted in the ground seems to wilt in the winter chill.

Family members have refused to talk. A wary elderly neighbor said, "I believe somebody killed her."

The answering machine message on Smith's phone was changed to provide information about her funeral Saturday. There was no wake, the message said, because wakes are for sadness and tears.

"Please wear lively attire," said a young woman's voice. "Because this is a joyous occasion -- because she's going home to be with the Lord."

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