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L.A.-Born JDL Man a Suspect in ‘85 Slaying of Alex Odeh

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Times Staff Writer

Federal authorities said Friday that a longtime Los Angeles resident and member of the Jewish Defense League, accused of a 1980 bombing murder in Manhattan Beach, is also a prime suspect in the 1985 bombing death of Alex M. Odeh, a top official of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Southern California.

Robert Steven Manning, a U.S. Army-trained demolitions expert now in Israel, is suspected by authorities of involvement in three other bombings that are believed to be the work of extremists allied with Rabbi Meir Kahane, head of Israel’s militant Kach Party.

Sources close to the investigation in California and New York said Manning, 36, is one of at least four suspects--all living in Israel--in the Odeh killing. The sources declined to identify the other suspects in the case. Manning’s wife, Rochelle Ida Manning, 48, may have had a “peripheral” role in the Odeh case, added the sources, who asked not to be identified.

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Odeh, 41, was killed when a bomb ripped through the Santa Ana offices of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. He was killed hours after he appeared on a television news show and praised PLO leader Yasser Arafat as a “man of peace.”

No one has been charged in the slaying.

Began to Emerge

Manning’s alleged connection to the Odeh case began to emerge Friday during a federal court hearing at which his wife was ordered into custody in connection with the Manhattan Beach bombing. She was arrested Wednesday when she returned to Los Angeles from Israel. Robert Manning was also charged in that case.

Manning, who was convicted in a 1972 bombing at the home of an Arab activist in Hollywood, claims that he is the target of FBI harassment and has denied involvement in any crimes.

In a letter seized from his wife when she was arrested Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport and offered as evidence at Friday’s hearing, Manning wrote: “Tell the FBI to stop harassing me.”

Assistant U.S. Atty. Nancy Wieben Stock refused to discuss the letter’s contents.

But Manning’s lawyer in New York, Samuel Abady, said in an interview after the hearing that the confiscated letter, addressed to the American Civil Liberties Union last summer, was in response to a letter sent to Manning by FBI Agent Larry E. Wack, who works in the agency’s New York office. In it, Abady said, the FBI agent threatened to put Manning on “Death Row” for the Odeh killing.

“They accused him of murder, extortion, income tax evasion,” Abady said. “They don’t have a case against him.”

Abady also accused the FBI of orchestrating Rochelle Manning’s arrest as a “ploy” to force her husband’s return from Israel.

Stock declined comment when asked about Abady’s assertions. Wack could not be reached for comment.

For several years, U.S. authorities have tried to get Israeli approval to gather evidence in Israel against Kahane’s followers, who live in and around Kiriat Arba on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But Israeli officials have rebuffed such efforts, federal authorities contend.

Comings and Goings

In 1986, internal FBI memos surfaced that told of Israeli non-cooperation in trying to obtain travel and telephone records that detail the comings and goings of Israeli JDL members to this country.

Another problem is that no one has been extradited to the United States from Israel since 1967, despite the existence of extradition treaties, according to Stock. She would not say whether the United States had asked for Manning’s extradition.

Sources said that, in addition to the Odeh murder, Manning is suspected of involvement in the 1985 bombings of:

- Suspected Nazi Tscherim Soobzokov who died in a blast that destroyed his Paterson, N.J., home.

- Elmars Sprogis, a reputed police official at a Nazi concentration camp, who was uninjured when a device exploded outside his Brentwood, N.Y., home.

- Two police officers who were injured when they tried to defuse a bomb sent to an Arab-American Anti-Defamation Committee office in Boston.

Stock’s reluctance after the detention hearing to answer questions left another mystery unanswered: What was the motive for the 1980 bombing?

Patricia Wilkerson, 35, a secretary at Prowest Computer Corp., was killed on July 17, 1980, when she opened a package addressed to a “Ms. Brenda Crouthamel.” A letter accompanying the package said the device inside the package should be plugged into an electrical outlet.

The device was touted in the letter as a “new invention” that would “open a new age in computer sales and advertising.”

When Wilkerson plugged in the device, it exploded, killing her instantly.

Stock told the court that Rochelle Manning’s fingerprints were on the letter and that her husband’s were on the package the device arrived in. Authorities would not say whom they thought the package was intended for.

Found on Letter

The wife’s lawyer, federal Public Defender Robert Martin, argued in court that the fingerprints found on the letter and package were not proof that the couple sent the device or that they intended to kill anyone.

Rochelle Manning is being held without bail at Sybil Brand Institute. She and her husband are charged with aiding and abetting the mailing of an explosive and conspiracy to send a device with the intent to kill.

Postal inspectors have termed the killing a “straight-out” homicide with no political implications, but Stock and others familiar with the case have been silent on this point.

A picture of Robert Manning’s troubled past is contained in court records and government documents.

Born in Los Angeles in 1952, he had a history of problems as a youth, ranging from curfew violations and running away from home to burglary. He dropped out of Fairfax High School at 17 and joined the Army a year later.

While in the Army, he was trained as a demolitions expert. He left the Army a year later on a “not able to adjust” discharge and worked variously as a private investigator, machinist and draftsman.

He was sentenced to three years’ probation after he was convicted in the 1972 bombing of an Arab activist’s Hollywood home. He received probation after he disavowed his JDL affiliation in court, records show.

After the case, he left for Israel, where he renewed his JDL ties, but traveled back and forth to the United States at the time of three of the 1985 bombings, federal documents show. His wife took up dual citizenship during their time in Israel. He was in the U.S. twice last year, but federal authorities apparently made no effort to detain him.

Staff writers Roxane Arnold and Marita Hernandez contributed to this story.


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