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Pair Not Likely to Face Charges in Odeh Slaying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a Jewish couple awaited possible extradition from Israel in a Manhattan Beach murder, U.S. and Israeli officials said Monday that international law will probably prevent the two from ever facing charges in the 1985 murder of Arab-American activist Alex Odeh in Santa Ana.

The Israeli Ministry of Justice confirmed Monday that Ronald and Rochelle Manning, who emigrated to Israel in the 1980s from Los Angeles, were arrested over the weekend to stand trial in the 1980 death of Patricia Wilkerson, a secretary killed when she plugged in a device sent by mail to her boss.

The Mannings, who live in the occupied West Bank territory of Israel, have been under indictment in the case since 1988. Rochelle Manning stood trial but was freed after a mistrial, while Robert Manning remained a fugitive in Israel. U.S. prosecutors said that because Rochelle Manning was never acquitted, she can now be retried.

Although never charged, Robert Manning has been frequently named by U.S. officials as the prime suspect in the bombing death of Odeh, head of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Western office. Manning’s wife has also been mentioned as a possible suspect, along with two other people living in the West Bank.

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In securing the Mannings’ arrest, the United States set aside its insistence that the couple be arrested inside Israel proper, where Robert Manning had been seen publicly on several occasions.

The Bush Administration is sensitive about taking steps that would imply recognition of a permanent Israeli hold on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East War and which is home to 1.7 million Palestinians.

But “that idea faded away,” an Israeli official said without elaborating. And in the end, the Mannings were arrested Sunday at Kiryat Arba, a militant nationalist settlement on the West Bank.

Other factors slowing diplomatic efforts for the extradition are legal preparations, the Persian Gulf War, and still-unresolved questions raised over the Mannings’ citizenship and whether the date of their emigration to Israel would affect their extradition.

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Yet even with the Mannings now in custody, officials stressed Monday that international law appears to preclude charges being brought against either of them in the Odeh case.

Unless the Mannings are extradited from Israel on a charge connected to the Odeh case, they cannot be tried on that case upon arrival in this country, said William Fahey, the first assistant chief in the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.

“The (U.S.) extradition treaty with Israel is very specific,” Fahey said.

An Israeli spokeswoman agreed, saying bluntly that she sees little chance for additional cases to be tacked onto the current charges pending in the extradition request.

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“If the United States asks for (the Mannings’) extradition on this (Manhattan Beach) case, they can’t charge (them) or even ask about other matters,” said Etty Eshed of the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem.

When the Justice Ministry brings the case to a Jerusalem magistrate this week for an extradition request, the charge will center exclusively on the Wilkerson case, Eshed said.

In December, the United States asked for the Mannings’ extradition on the Wilkerson case, Eshed said. As for Odeh, she added: “Nobody mentioned it.”

It could be a year before the extradition proceedings, including appeals, are completed in Israel, Eshed said.

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In the meantime, friends and family of Odeh wait.

“There’s no cause for immediate celebration regarding Alex’s case and his assassins being brought to justice,” said Albert Mokhiber, president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and a longtime friend of Odeh. “But this does cause us to be somewhat optimistic that new information will be brought to light.”

Sami Odeh, brother of Alex and an Orange real estate broker, said: “Initially (over the weekend), I was encouraged that finally justice might have taken the first step. Then that feeling was dampened when I found out this might not relate to Alex at all.

“It would be a shame for them to go around the law and put them behind bars for Patricia Wilkerson and say we don’t have to resolve my brother’s death.”

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Investigators in the Wilkerson case say they believe that the explosive that killed her was concealed in a device mailed to her boss, Brenda Crouthamel, at Prowest Computer Corp. in Manhattan Beach.

Another defendant in the murder case, millionaire real estate broker William Ross, was allegedly embroiled in a business dispute with Crouthamel over her negotiations to buy his house.

The Mannings allegedly mailed the package, but the supposed motive for their involvement has never been made clear. Federal authorities have only said they do not think that this bombing, unlike others they link to Robert Manning, was political.

Ross, like Rochelle Manning, was freed after a mistrial caused by a hung jury. Federal authorities could not say whether retrying him is also being reconsidered.

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Times staff writers Ronald Ostrow and Jim Mann in Washington and Dan Williams in Israel contributed to this report.


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