Adamant: Hardest metal

Arrest made in Temple Beth El arson - Suspect born in Venezuela of Palestinian parents was treated in Michigan for burns shortly after 2000 fire.

March 18, 2003 4:33:53 AM CET
March 17, 2003
By Jim O'Hara
Staff writer

A Syracuse-area man of Palestinian descent has been charged with torching the Temple Beth El on the city's East Side nearly 2½ years ago.

District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick on Sunday afternoon announced from Temple Beth El the arrest of Ramses "Ramzi" Uthman on a battery of charges in connection with the October 2000 fire at the site.

Uthman was arrested late Friday in Los Angeles on a warrant issued after an Onondaga County grand jury recently returned a sealed indictment in the case.

"This was a crime not only against the people of this congregation, but against all Jewish people of Central New York and, frankly, against all people of faith," Fitzpatrick said.

According to the district attorney, a second man who is cooperating with authorities also was involved in the fire and will face charges at a later date. Fitzpatrick declined to release his name.

A Syracuse police report identified the second man as Ahed Shehadeh, 29, formerly of 339 Elm St., who is serving a 2- to 4-year prison term in Collins Correctional Facility in Erie County on an unrelated burglary conviction.

Shehadeh's mother, Nihad Shehadeh, said Sunday evening that FBI agents interviewed her son about a month ago about the temple arson, and her son admitted his involvement in the incident.

"He was the driver. Ramzi asked him for a ride. He didn't do anything," said Nihad Shehadeh. She said she did not know why the fire was set.

Nihad Shehadeh said maybe the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was the motivation behind the crime. But she said her son, a Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem and is a Muslim, did not hate Jewish people.

Fitzpatrick declined to provide many details, but said the evidence would show that the fire was a hate crime that targeted the temple at 3528 E. Genesee St. because it was a place of worship for Jewish people.

Uthman is accused of breaking into the temple late on the night of Oct. 13, 2000, and setting fire to a substantial amount of gasoline in an area of the building he apparently believed was used for worship. The fire heavily damaged a first-floor business office in the back of the building and an office above that was used by the Montessori Learning Center. The blaze caused about $700,000 in damage.

"This act of terrorism did not just affect our congregation and Jewish people. We look at this as an act of terrorism against the American freedom of speech and religion," said Steven Davis, president of the temple congregation who was present Sunday as Fitzpatrick announced the new developments in the case.

Davis and other temple officials all expressed relief Sunday that an arrest had been made, providing some closure to the case.

Glenn Suddaby, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York, said federal officials will await the outcome of the state case against Uthman and will then pursue a federal prosecution of the accused arsonist as well.

Fitzpatrick said Uthman could face up to 25 years in state prison if convicted on the top charges in the local indictment. Suddaby said Uthman could face up to 40 years in prison if convicted of a federal hate crime in the temple fire.

Uthman, 29, for whom authorities listed local addresses on Merriman Avenue in Syracuse and Paddle Wheel Road in Camillus, is expected to be in court in Los Angeles later today to face the beginning of an extradition proceeding to get him back in Syracuse to face the charges, Fitzpatrick said.

According to the prosecutor, Uthman was born in Venezuela of Palestinian parents but is a naturalized citizen of the United States who has lived in the Syracuse area for some time.

The investigation had law enforcement officials looking for Uthman in Michigan, Florida and California before Uthman was taken into custody by federal marshals at a gas station in North Hollywood Friday night. Uthman was taken into custody without incident although he apparently was aware police were looking for him, Fitzpatrick said.

"This was one of the most intensive and relentless investigations in the history of law enforcement in Central New York," Fitzpatrick said, noting officials had pursued hundreds of leads before a "real break" in the case came in November.

That was when a witness provided the FBI with "significant intelligence" allowing authorities to begin making progress in the case after two years, Fitzpatrick said, without elaborating. That information was shared with Suddaby who brought in Fitzpatrick for a meeting at the U.S. Attorney's Office to plan a strategy, the DA said.

That led officials to Dearborn, Mich., in January, Fitzpatrick said. It was then that officials learned Uthman had been treated at a hospital in Dearborn for burns he reportedly suffered in the temple fire, the prosecutor said.

Fitzpatrick said Uthman reportedly suffered "substantial burns" when the gasoline fumes surrounding him ignited when he allegedly set fire to the temple. Although neighbors reported hearing what sounded like an explosion the night of the fire, authorities later said that may have resulted from the ignition of vapors from the accelerant that had built up in the office and not from any bomb or explosive device.

Further progress in the case was made last month when the unindicted co-defendant began cooperating with authorities, providing information about how and why the temple was set ablaze, Fitzpatrick said.

With that information, Senior Assistant District Attorney Edward McQuat presented the case to a county grand jury and a sealed indictment was delivered to County Judge Joseph Fahey, who signed the warrant for Uthman's arrest, Fitzpatrick said.

Uthman is charged with second- and third-degree burglary, third-degree arson and second-degree criminal mischief, all as hate crimes, which increases the level of severity of the charges. He also is charged with second- and third-degree burglary, third-degree arson, second-degree criminal mischief, first-degree reckless endangerment, aggravated harassment and criminal interference with a religious service.

Fitzpatrick Sunday said the evidence will show Uthman targeted the temple because it was a place of worship, but he declined to say if Temple Beth El was a specific target or just a target of convenience for the accused arsonist.

Fitzpatrick said Uthman has a lengthy criminal record locally, but officials are not aware of any prior hate crime incidents. He also said there was no evidence to link the temple arson to any wider plot, but that the investigation by state and federal officials was continuing.

Shortly after the fire, then U.S. Attorney Daniel French said authorities did not have a specific motive for the attack but were looking at whether the temple had been targeted because of the recent outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestinians in the Middle East.

Asked why it took so long to find Uthman, Fitzpatrick Sunday characterized the defendant as a "very clever adversary" who had a number of aliases, a number of different passports and numerous addresses. Officials were looking for him here and in Florida, California and Michigan because of family connections, he said.

Fitzpatrick also said witnesses had been reluctant to cooperate early on because they were "quite fearful" of Uthman. With Uthman now in custody, Fitzpatrick bluntly warned Sunday that any attempt to intimidate or harm any witnesses in the case would be vigorously prosecuted as well.

He also noted that state law allows for a death penalty murder prosecution if someone were to kill a witness in the case.

The blaze led to a massive investigation by up to 150 agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Syracuse Police Department. It also led city police and sheriff's deputies to begin guarding synagogues in the area 24 hours a day until Gov. George Pataki ordered state police to take over those duties throughout the county.

Fitzpatrick said Sunday Pataki recently inquired about the progress of the investigation.

"I applaud the unyielding efforts of our federal, state and local law enforcement officials in securing the arrest of a suspect in the Temple Beth El fire. As prosecutors move forward with their work, it should be remembered that the sweeping Hate Crimes legislation I signed into law provides additional penalties for crimes that are motivated by religious intolerance," Pataki said in a statement Sunday.

With no leads in the weeks after the fire, federal officials offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever was responsible for torching the temple building. Fitzpatrick Sunday said he did not expect there would be any claims for the reward.

Staff writers Mike McAndrew and John Mariani contributed to this report.