Los Angeles Times

One Texas cartoon contest gunman was American convert to Islam

One of the Texas cartoon contest gunmen was an American convert to Islam who lived near Phoenix

One of the gunmen killed Sunday at a Texas event promoting drawings of the Muslim prophet Muhammad was an American convert to Islam and a wannabe jihadist who lived in north Phoenix, according to court records and a federal law enforcement official.

Elton Simpson, who was in his mid-20s, was born in Illinois and moved to Phoenix, according to court records. Simpson was prosecuted in 2010 in federal court in Phoenix for making false statements to FBI agents about going to Somalia to engage in jihad.

Phoenix attorney Kristina Sitton, who represented Simpson, then 19, in the 2010 case, said she first met him after his conversion to Islam in high school. After converting, Simpson gave up drinking and sex, Sitton said. “He was on a really good path,” she said.

Simpson -- who didn't have a criminal record or any traffic tickets when he was first prosecuted -- was being closely watched by the FBI during the late 2000s, according to court records.

Officials said investigators paid Simpson's roommate $132,000 over several years to wear a body wire and record his conversations with Simpson.

In 2009, the FBI opened a formal criminal investigation after the secret recordings captured Simpson talking with Dabla Deng, his roommate, about jihad and going to the "battlefield" in Somalia.

“I'm telling you, man, we can make it to the battlefield...It's time to roll," Simpson said, according to court transcripts of the recording.

In what a court official described in the transcripts as a "singing-type" voice, Simpson said, "Bye bye, America."

Simpson had enrolled in a madrassa in South Africa to study Islam and signed up for a new passport when investigators questioned Simpson in front of his home in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale, Ariz., about whether his true intentions were to go to Somalia.

Simpson denied it, and a grand jury indicted him on suspicion of lying to federal investigators. His attorney, Sitton, dismissed the Somalia conversations as just talk, "absolutely silly."

Simpson's mosque put up the $100,000 bail while he was being held on the false-statement charge.

Simpson was found guilty, but the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the crime was directly involved to “international terrorism.”

Simpson was placed on three years probation and fined $600.

In court records, officials said Simpson's family, who lived in the Phoenix area, including Simpson's father, attended at least one of the court hearings.

Simpson's father is a plumber, said Tony Cabrales, 49, a neighbor of the family at their last known address in a quiet Avondale subdivision.

The family lives in a pretty stucco-sided house in the subdivision with views between the homes of the charcoal-colored Sierra Estrella range to the west.

"Real nice neighbors, we were just, 'hi, bye,' " Cabrales said. "There's a lot of kids running up and down here, but it's a quiet neighborhood."

Cabrales said he last saw Simpson two years ago.

Simpson was a proselytizer, Sitton said, constantly pushing his religion on other people in prison and even Sitton herself.

"He was kind of a talker, but he seemed harmless," Sitton said.

"I represented some of the worst of the worst, and I never would have thought he would do this," she said.

In 2011, Simpson tried to fly to Ohio for his grandmother's funeral. At the airport, Sitton said Simpson was told he could not fly unless he went to a side room and talked to the FBI.

He called Sitton. "They were trying to get him to be an informant," Sitton said. "They said 'If you want to come in, cooperate.' "

In court records, federal investigators said that Simpson had known Hassan Abu-Jihaad, an enlistee in the U.S. Navy who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2009 for leaking information on the Navy to the operators of a jihadi website.

“As the FBI agents were shaking defendant’s hand, and preparing to leave, defendant asked agents about Hassan Abu Jihad," the prosecution wrote of the Jan. 7, 2010 interview in one memo. "Specifically, defendant asked about the status of Abu Jihad’s appeal of his federal conviction. ... After asking about Abu Jihad, defendant stated he was concerned about Abu Jihad’s future. Defendant and Abu Jihad knew each other from Abu Jihad’s previous time in Phoenix."

Duara reported from Phoenix and Pearce from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Richard A. Serrano in Boston contributed to this report.

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