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Rude, Nervous Behavior Made Key Suspect Stick Out : Investigation: Staff at truck rental office remembers he had ‘an attitude,’ wanted to make sure van was legal.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was nervous about the police. That was one thing the employees at Ryder Truck Rental recalled about the bearded man who rented one of their yellow, 10-foot Ford Econoline vans--one of the “Valentine vans” specially ordered two weeks earlier to meet the needs of local florists.

He also had what secretary Connie Bellows called simply “an attitude.” He was rude, she said. Particularly when he returned a day later and demanded that the broken rear-view mirror be replaced on the door of his rented van.

“He wanted to make sure everything was legal,” the 20-year-old part-time college student said, recalling how the man had yelled at her when she helped another customer before him.

“He said he didn’t want to be pulled over by the cops driving a van with a bad mirror,” she said.

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That was Wednesday, Feb. 24. On Friday, Feb. 26, on the second level of the parking garage beneath New York’s World Trade Center, the van with its new mirror apparently was blown to barely recognizable bits of chrome, glass and steel.

Within 90 minutes of the first news bulletins about the blast, Mohammed A. Salameh, the bearded man with the “attitude,” returned to the Ryder office on busy Kennedy Boulevard here, holding a key and his rental agreement. He said the van had been stolen the previous evening at a shopping center about half a mile away. He wanted his $400 cash deposit refunded.

Moments earlier, Paul Mascitelli and Patrick Galasso had been listening to news reports about the blast on the office radio. Thousands of office workers were still stranded in the 110-story towers just across the Hudson River from this modest working-class community.

Galasso, the office manager, made no link between the missing van and the reports pouring out of the radio. But he wasn’t happy with Salameh.

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Salameh said the van disappeared Thursday, but Galasso wanted to know why did he wait until almost 2 p.m. Friday to report it. Furthermore, the van had been rented on Tuesday, so the bearded man owed Ryder for more than a day’s rental. In any case, there would be no refund until an official police report was filed.

In the end, it would be Salameh’s insistence on recovering that deposit that would lead him into handcuffs and federal charges of complicity in the bombing that killed at least five people, injured more than 1,000 others and crippled one of United States’ most prominent engineering landmarks.

“There was some loud talking. He wasn’t very happy about waiting,” Galasso said. “He wanted his money. He said: ‘Why can’t we settle the account now?’ And I said: ‘No police report, no money.’ ”

Galasso said his customer did subsequently file a stolen vehicle report with the local police department. As was customary, however, police advised Salameh that they could not provide a written copy of their official report until sometime the next week.

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On Monday, three days after the bombing, Jersey City police still had not prepared a written report. But an impatient Salameh returned, saying that he had filed the report but that police said no written document would be available until late in the week.

Galasso shrugged. No money without a copy of that report. Salameh offered to pay for a full week’s rental and accept payment of the difference. Galasso called his supervisors across town. No deal.

Then came the call from the FBI.

It was late Wednesday. Bomb squad members combing the fringes of the trade center blast site--still unable to search ground zero due to hazardous conditions in the devastated parking garage--had found pieces of a yellow Ford Econoline E-350 van. One of those pieces, the axle, bore part of the vehicle identification number.

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Authorities already had determined that the location of the axle and shards of metal on the underground garage ramp--combined with their fragmented and twisted condition--made it likely they had once been part of the vehicle that carried the bomb.

Another clue came from a parking stub from the World Trade Center lot, which included a portion of the license number of the rented van. Officials said attendants routinely write down license numbers on stubs from rental vehicles for security reasons.

Using the information and a police computer network that tracks stolen cars, the FBI was able to trace the van--Alabama license plate XA70668--to the leasing company in Jersey City.

When FBI agents arrived, they asked to see copies of the rental agreement. And they asked about Salameh. Galasso said he was sure he would hear from his customer again because the man “was bugging me about the money.”

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Through it all the agents never mentioned the World Trade Center. Why do you want to know all this, Galasso asked. The agents shrugged. One said: “You’ll put it together.”

He did. That night on the news Galasso heard that investigators were looking into the possibility that a rented van, previously reported stolen, had contained the New York car bomb.

“Jesus Christ, that’s our truck,” he told his wife.

Watching news accounts late into the night, he said he prayed that Salameh would phone again on Thursday. At the same time, he dreaded the call.

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Salameh did not disappoint. He called in the morning to renew negotiations for his $400 cash refund, although he still had no police report. This time Galasso gave in. “OK, Mohammed. Come and get your money,” he said. That was about 9 a.m.

In less than an hour, Salameh strolled through the gate and across the used car lot owned by Mascitelli, Galasso’s landlord. He had on the same flannel jacket he was wearing nine days earlier when he rented the van.

Galasso stepped out to greet his customer--a bit more warmly than on any previous occasion. “I was nervous. I was shaking, to tell you the truth,” Galasso said.

Inside the dingy little office, a stranger sat at one of the desks, casually reading a newspaper. A moment after Salameh entered, a second stranger emerged from a back room. Galasso introduced them as “the men from Ryder.” They’d come to help negotiate the refund, he explained.

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Salameh reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a folded copy of his rental agreement. He recounted his story: He had only used the truck two days when it was stolen from the parking lot over at Shop-Rite. It was a great inconvenience. He had been forced to borrow a station wagon to finish moving his furniture.

And not only that, the gas tank was full. He’d just put $25 worth of unleaded in the van before it was swiped. Could he get credit for returning the rental with a full tank?

A compromise was reached. Salameh would get half. The two so-called Ryder men, actually undercover FBI agents, retained the lease agreement. From the office till, Galasso pulled out a pair of $100 bills, handing them to Salameh.

It was starting to rain when the now-satisfied customer stepped out of the office. He said he now lived in an apartment little more than a mile away, but he had no car. He asked about catching a bus out front.

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A few moments later, near the boulevard bus stop, teams of federal agents appeared “like out of a movie.” As Galasso watched, the man who had rented his Valentine van was taken into custody.

The rental agreement already was on its way to a crime lab where officials discovered nitrate traces--a telltale sign that someone who touched the document had also been in contact with explosives.


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