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Family of Slain Arab-American Still Waiting for Justice

Times Staff Writer

Norma Odeh returned the call and said she still would prefer not to talk about it.

It has been two years since her husband, Alex M. Odeh, a college instructor and regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was killed by a bomb rigged to explode as the door to the committee’s Santa Ana office was opened.

No one else was there when Odeh opened the door at 9:11 a.m. Friday morning, Oct. 11, 1986. He suffered the full force of the blast and died an hour and 13 minutes later of severe lower-body injuries.

No one has been arrested for the crime.

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“Privately, she occasionally expresses how she feels,” said her husband’s brother, Sami M. Odeh, a real estate broker in Orange. “I guess she’s bearing up well.

“The three little girls (Alex Odeh’s daughters, Helena, now 10, Samya, 7, and Susan, 3) -- sometimes seem to be tougher, but inside I don’t think they are. They have trouble expressing emotions.

“The grief, it stays with you a long, long time. It goes into a dormant stage. Then comes the anniversary, and it reminds you. The grief will always be with me.”

The Odeh family (properly pronounced “OH-dah” but Americanized to “oh-DAY”) is not trying to forget. This year as last, family members gathered on the anniversary of Alex Odeh’s murder--not to mourn, exactly, but to be together, Sami Odeh said.

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They attended St. Norbert Catholic Church in Orange, where the bombing was mentioned during Mass. Afterward, the family gathered at the home of one of Alex Odeh’s sisters, Ellen Nassab.

“We just simply get the dormant emotions out,” Sami Odeh said. “I had flashbacks of being in my office. I was with a client right here when the telephone rang. I kind of flashed back--rushing to the hospital, people gathering, the surgeon coming out and making the announcement after coming from the operating room.”

Nor is the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee trying to forget. This year as last, the ADC organized a banquet to eulogize Alex Odeh and honor groups that do humanitarian work in the Middle East. It was held Saturday at the Inn at the Park hotel in Anaheim, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Assn. was honored.

“We intend to have an Alex Odeh memorial banquet every year,” Sami Odeh said.

More than 300 people turned out for the banquet, including former U.S. Sen. James Abourezk, national chairman of the ADC.

The South Dakota Democrat blamed the lack of progress in the investigation of the killing on “the Reagan Administration’s attitude. . . . They ignored an act of terrorism in our own backyard and instead talked about terrorism around the world for their own political advantage.”

The significance of the evening, he said, was “a recognition once again of the work we have to do in this area. We’ve gotten rid of a lot of the stereotypes and discrimination, but we have a long way to go.”

Sami Odeh said the banquet is “an important recognition of the community’s background and to honor a man who paid with his life to spread peace and justice for all the oppressed people in the world.”

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The traces of the crime have long since disappeared at the site of the bombing. The shattered windows, shredded curtains and broken walls of the office the ADC rented on the second floor of 1905 East 17th St. have been restored but are vacant.After the bombing, the ADC left Orange County for Los Angeles. You can telephone

the ADC office there, but the staff will not tell you the address.

“We do not give out the exact location,” an office worker said over the phone. “We have a post office box, if you want to send something to us.”

“The organization did go through a period, especially in California, of retrenchment, simply out of fear,” said Faris Bouhafa, spokesman for the ADC’s national office in Washington. “It was a very painful process for many Arab-Americans in the Los Angeles area to get over this. You could say it created a chill on Arab-Americans for a while.”

Sami Odeh said there was more than a chill. There was anger.

“It subsided a little bit,” he said. “It goes dormant. I can’t be angry at one or two persons who did it. Here it is two years, and we have nobody behind bars. No one is paying for the crime.”

Reward No Help

On the first anniversary of the bombing, the ADC in Washington offered a $100,000 reward in the case, but the reward expired last January without results.

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“Occasionally I talk to the FBI,” Sami Odeh said. “I talked to them about a month ago. They constantly tell me they are working, they have the same number of people working as before, they haven’t dropped it. But after two years, is it really a priority or is it not?

“I want to believe it. I don’t want to lose faith in the system.”

In July of last year, Oliver B. Revell, assistant FBI director, told the House judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice that “Jewish extremist elements” were suspected of the Odeh bombing.

“The Alex Odeh case is the highest priority investigation in our domestic terrorism program, and it will continue to be until it is solved,” Revell told the subcommittee. “We have suspects in this case, and we are pursuing these suspects.”

Grand Jury Convened

Last April, Revell told the ADC convention in Washington that a federal grand jury had been convened in Los Angeles to investigate activities against “the Arab community by Jewish extremist groups.”

But last week, Revell did not return phone queries on the case, and Assistant U.S. Atty. Steve Czuleger in Los Angeles refused to comment on even the existence of such a grand jury.

“I can’t comment on grand juries at all,” Czuleger said. “It’s against the law. I can tell you that this case has been assigned to the L.A. Joint Terrorist Task Force,” which is composed of federal and local law enforcement officers.

Charles Rose, an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City, said that soon after the Odeh bombing, federal investigators became convinced that it was linked to similar bombings--one the previous August in Brentwood, N.Y., in which one person was injured, and another the previous September in Paterson, N.J., in which one man was killed. But unlike Odeh, the victims of those bombings were purported to have Nazi backgrounds.

“There is a similarity in method and a similarity in device” between those two bombings and the Odeh bombing, Rose said. “Suspects have been identified, and the investigation continues.”

But Rose said other, less serious bombings in New York City appear unrelated. The people who were arrested and who pleaded guilty to those have been “pretty well eliminated as being involved” in the Odeh slaying, he said.

Those incidents included the tossing of a tear-gas grenade within the Metropolitan Opera House during a ballet performed by a Soviet troupe and the throwing of firebombs at a Soviet residential complex in the Bronx and at Avery Fisher Hall the day the Moscow State Symphony was scheduled to perform.

Rose said three pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges, specifically, using the Jewish Defense League “to carry out bombings, extortion and fraud.” Two defendants--Victor Vancier and Mary Young, both of New York City--could each face 20 years’ imprisonment and are expected to be sentenced within a few weeks. The third, Jay Cohen, also of New York City, recently committed suicide at an upstate New York resort. “We are convinced it was suicide,” Rose said.

The first person who had been arrested, Murray Young of New York City, reportedly helped investigators in the case and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of “aiding a tear-gas attack.”

“I’m convinced the investigation is active. I’m convinced of it,” Bouhafa said. “I have to believe that the people who are arresting someone for smoke bombs at an opera house are even more interested in a murder. I’ve got to assume that. There seems to be a whole lot of activity going on.” Five days before the Odeh bombing, the Italian liner Achille Lauro was seized off Port Said by terrorists, and before they surrendered, they murdered a passenger, 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer of New York City.

“It seemed like the media was trying to make a comparison between Alex and Klinghoffer,” Sami Odeh said. “What happened to both of them was awful, but different.

“When you travel in the Middle East, you are prepared for the danger. You almost expect it. But this was the first time in Orange County that a man kissed his wife goodby, drove to the office and it explodes as you open the door.”

Times Staff Writer Doug Brown contributed to this article.


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