First to Fall, First Forgotten

Times Staff Writer

He can't drive. He can't tie his shoes. He can't count past 11 or remember your name. He lives next to the Brighton Beach boardwalk and can smell the salty summer air, but he must strain to see the ocean. His left eye is gone; sight in the other is half what it was.

He gets by on a wheelchair and a walker. A stroke during his recovery left his right side all but useless, his hand permanently twisted. Because he can't read, at night he turns on the television, to a music channel.

Lately, he's also been listening to a new game show called "Deal or No Deal," trying to understand the world again.

Louis Pepe is a former corrections officer at the Manhattan federal jail. He is 48 years old and lives with his aging mother. His sister is his legal guardian.

Almost a year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Pepe became the first victim of Al Qaeda terrorists in America while he was on duty at the jail. A top lieutenant to Osama bin Laden stabbed him in the eye, but his name has barely registered outside New York. Unlike the Sept. 11 victims and families, Pepe has struggled to recover in almost complete anonymity.

Another blow came when a judge ruled in September 2003 in the case against his attacker that legally Pepe was not a victim of terrorism at all. She said the knife attack was not an act of terrorism because it did not "transcend international boundaries."

The judge's decision has forced the Pepe family to press all the harder for financial assistance from the federal government. He has had to fight for ambulatory care and other needs. Just this month, for instance, the government balked at paying for a new prosthetic eye before finally relenting.

In November 2000, Pepe was beaten by two suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. They had planned to take hostages in return for a flight to freedom, but Pepe refused to hand over his jail keys. So one of them, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, plunged a homemade knife into his eye. Pepe could hear the ripping sound as it was shoved up his brain.

"You see this, Mr. G?" he said recently, pointing to the jagged hollow of his eye socket.

He not only can't remember names, he can't pronounce them either. He is unable to recognize one individual from another. To Pepe, your name is simply G.

"You see this, Mr. G?" he said. "This is what they did to me."

*

He arrived at the hospital with the knife's black handle still jutting from his eye, quivering. "Louis refused to be carried out," recalled his sister, Eileen Trotta. "He wanted to walk out to show the terrorists that we won, meaning the U.S.A., and that he did not give up."

For 2 1/2 years after the assault, Pepe remained hospitalized: He suffered a massive stroke after surgery to remove the weapon. Pneumonia followed; then a collapsed lung. He spent three weeks in a coma and was placed on life support. Multiple infections set in. His temperature peaked at 105. Follow-up brain surgery helped ease spinal fluid leaking from his eye socket.

Pepe is now slowly regaining his strength. He once weighed 300 pounds but has dropped half of it. Each morning before sunrise, he bursts awake and starts in on 500 sit-ups.

He may be deeply disfigured, but he still hopes to marry. He emphasized that by suddenly crossing the fingers on his good hand and kissing the air.

More important, he wants to be well enough to give speeches on how to combat terrorism. He believes the embassy bombers should never have been housed together in the jail or allowed to buy the commissary items they turned into weapons.

Several days a week he has physical therapy, but otherwise he spends his time alone with the mother he had planned to support in her old age. At bedtime he pauses, unable to look away from the image in his mirror of the twisted hand, the empty eye socket, the circular scar on his left temple.

So he works hard to rebuild his life. "I'm going to be med-free!" he blurted out, hoping one day to be rid of the prescription drugs that keep him functioning. The doctors doubt that.

But Louis Pepe believes the doctors don't know everything that's good for him. In winter when the boardwalk freezes over, he sips two cocktails in the evening -- rum and diet Coke, or Seagram's Seven and diet ginger ale. He has learned to pour them from a plastic bottle so as not to spill. Now that summer is here, he drinks two beers.

"Want one?" he asked, playfully winking his one eye.

Dr. Howard G. Thistle, a specialist in rehabilitative medicine, has determined that Pepe "remains totally disabled." Conrad Berenson, a New York economic consultant, calculated Pepe's job-related loss at more than $1 million.

Under federal workers' compensation he gets two-thirds of his pay, or $2,600 a month.

In contrast, billions of dollars were awarded to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and their relatives in recognition of their sacrifice, based on lost future income and the needs of each family.

To Pepe, many of them were like him: police officers injured trying to stop a terrorist attack. But Pepe understands the suffering of the others. After the Sept. 11 attacks, many of the World Trade Center bodies were brought to a makeshift morgue at his hospital. The hospital staff and the FBI worried that Pepe himself might be targeted.

They secretly moved him to another facility. They renamed him Hank Bagner. "Pepe" was erased from his medical charts and even rubbed off his hospital sneakers.

When he came home in February 2003, it was to his mother's house in Queens. But a mosque had opened nearby, and it agitated Pepe. Aides to former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani found Pepe and his mother a first-floor apartment on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. The federal workers' compensation board picks up the $2,800-a-month rent.

When Pepe asked for a specially equipped van to help him get around, the government balked. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) persuaded workers' comp to provide him the van in a swap for Pepe's 1987 Oldsmobile. For the first time in years, Pepe was able to visit the dentist. His family drives him.

Workers' comp officials also initially denied him money for a $13,000 prosthetic eye. "Cannot be approved at this time," they wrote him in May. In June they relented.

Asked to explain, workers' comp officials cited federal privacy laws. They promised to speak in general terms about how such cases are handled, but never called back.

*

The son of a carpenter from Queens, Pepe set out to become an accountant but shifted to law enforcement and worked 13 years for the federal Bureau of Prisons.

He was assigned to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Manhattan, home at various times to mobster John Gotti and Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik who in 1993 plotted a series of bombing attacks in New York. He rose to senior officer specialist and was in line for a lieutenant's job. He was earning $47,000 a year.

Pepe was known around the facility as one of the more likable corrections officers.

"I was the best," he said.

The Sudanese-born Salim apparently was good at what he did too. He assumed a number of aliases and, according to federal court records, "helped to found the Al Qaeda organization." He ran training camps in Afghanistan and was, said FBI Special Agent Daniel J. Coleman, "particularly influential with Osama bin Laden."

Salim was arrested in Germany in September 1998. Charged with conspiracy in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that took 224 lives, he and half a dozen confederates were extradited to New York.

Awaiting trial, Salim became increasingly disenchanted with his American attorneys. Repeatedly, he asked the court for new lawyers; repeatedly, he was turned down. According to documents found in his cell, he devised a plan to injure or kill one of his attorneys. The FBI said the plot later evolved into a grander scheme to take hostages in return for being flown home to Africa.

Salim bought a comb at the commissary. Crouched under his concrete bunk, he sharpened the hard plastic into an 8-inch blade. He hid the shank above the shower. He filled several honey bear bottles with hot sauce.

On Nov. 1, 2000, Pepe was escorting Salim and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed to Salim's cell on the 10th floor when they attacked him. They beat Pepe and kicked him, trying to get his jail keys to release other suspects in the embassy bombings. But Pepe would not surrender the keys. They squirted the hot sauce in his eyes, and Pepe still would not turn over the keys. Then Salim, half the size of Pepe, reached for the knife.

Salim, later pleading guilty for Pepe's assault, testified in broken English: "I tried to take the keys. I could not. He was kicking. I became crazy. In this same spot I had the knife with the hot sauce. I put the knife and put it in his eye. He yelled, 'Finish, I will give you the key. I will give you the key.'

"Khalfan was taken aback, what I had done. He left me and fled."

Other corrections officers stormed the cell and found Pepe awash in his blood; his attackers had drawn a red cross on him.

Prosecutors insisted it was terrorism. The FBI found several ransom notes and other papers in Salim's cell, outlining the hostages-for-freedom plan.

"We have captured the tenth flr. in the MCC and we have several lawyers and officials," read one of the notes.

It continued: "If the government worrys about the safty of its citizines it has to comply with all our demands, otherwise it will be responsible for any consequences."

Mohamed was convicted in the embassy plot and, with an enhancement of charges in the knife attack, drew a life sentence.

Rather than being tried in the embassy bombings, Salim was charged with attempted murder of a federal official and conspiracy to take hostages. When he pleaded guilty, prosecutors were certain he would get life. They argued the stabbing was an act of terrorism.

But U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts ruled there was "insufficient evidence" to find the attack a "federal crime of terrorism." She said there was no proof Salim was "acting in concert with persons outside of the United States."

*

In May 2004, in the federal courthouse next to the jail, the judge sentenced a seemingly remorseful Salim to 32 years in the federal Supermax prison, the nation's most secure penitentiary.

"To cause somebody to lose his eye is not something that you can just apologize for," Salim told her. "To just probably apologize for that would be hypocrisy. I don't know what to say. What happened was wrong, and I take responsibility."

For weeks Pepe and his sister had practiced what he would say to the judge. On a long yellow sheet of paper, they drew pictures in red ink as reminders for him.

A set of keys X-ed out.

A knife sticking in an eye.

A cross with blood.

The words: "1st Al Qaeda Victim on U.S. Soil."

The hearing had hardly begun when Pepe became confused. Four times, as the judge recognized "Mr. Salim," Pepe burst out, "Ms. G, how about me?"

When his turn came, he at times was incomprehensible.

"How about me? How about me? Look at me," he said. "They had said that I'm probably going to be dead. Every day it hurts. Look at me. This is all dead. This is all dead. It all dead."

He acted out the attack. "Bam, bam bam. Hit me again. Hit me again.... Dun dun dun! ... Kich, kich, kich!"

He urged the judge to make sure Salim never got out.

"If you can, make it, Ms. G., never. Never, never, never."

The lawyers spoke and several more times Pepe interrupted. Each time the judge warned him against an outburst. When Salim's lawyers suggested Salim could have killed Pepe but spared his life, Pepe screamed, "No!"

The judge ordered him removed.

Salim tried to intervene. "Let him speak," he begged the judge. "Let him speak."

But Pepe was ushered out. "You are no good, you understand that?" he yelled one last time at Salim. "You're no good." To the courtroom, he shouted: "I'm dead, you understand that? Tomorrow, I am dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead!"

He did not leave alone.

A group of corrections officers rose with him. "My name is George Green," declared one. "I'm walking out too."

"Unity!" cried another.

After the hearing ended, Salim was taken to Supermax and Pepe driven back home, each to his own prison.

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