Terrorism case baffles remote Alaska town
He was the local weatherman, sending up weather balloons twice a day above this remote community of 450 full-time residents near Bristol Bay and preparing short-term forecasts for pilots and fishermen.
She was a stay-at-home mom who drove their 4-year-old to preschool, sang in the town choir and picked berries with her girlfriends. She took part in the community play, in which she portrayed a fairy godmother who acted as a prosecutor in court, confronting the Big Bad Wolf for his crimes against Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs and the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
So beloved were Paul Rockwood Jr. and his wife, Nadia, that when they left King Salmon in May to move to England, where Nadia was born, more than 30 people — pretty much their entire circle of friends — showed up at the airport. The choir sang “Wherever You Go,” and “people were just bawling,” said Rebecca Hamon, a friend of the couple.
What none of them could have known was that FBI agents were meeting the small turboprop plane in Anchorage to question the Rockwoods on suspicion of domestic terrorism-related crimes.
This week, Paul and Nadia Rockwood pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to one count of willfully making false statements to the FBI; in Paul Rockwood’s case, it was a statement about domestic terrorism.
The plea agreements state that Rockwood, 35, had become an adherent of extremist Islam who had prepared a list of assassination targets, including U.S. service members. And, though no plot to carry out the killings was revealed, he had researched methods of execution, including guns and explosives, the agreements say.
Federal charging papers said his wife, 36, who is five months pregnant with the couple’s second child, lied to investigators when she denied knowing that an envelope she took to Anchorage in April at her husband’s request contained a list of 15 intended targets. (None were in Alaska.) She told FBI agents that she thought the envelope contained a letter or a book. She gave it to an unidentified individual who her husband believed shared his radical beliefs, the FBI said.
Nadia knew exactly what was on the list and what it was for, federal authorities said.
“Obviously we take it very seriously when somebody starts talking about building bombs and component parts and killing citizens because of a hatred that is fueled by violent Internet sites,” said Karen L. Loeffler, U.S. attorney for Alaska.
Loeffler, who would not elaborate on how the FBI became aware of the Rockwoods, said the investigation does not involve any other terrorism suspects, and no additional charges are expected.
The plea agreements the couple signed said Paul Rockwood converted to Islam in late 2001 or early 2002 while living in Virginia and became a follower of radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar Awlaki, now believed to be living in Yemen.
“This included a personal conviction that it was his religious responsibility to exact revenge by death on anyone who desecrated Islam,” his agreement said.
Here in King Salmon, where the biggest thing is the annual red salmon run — it happens to be the biggest one in the world — this has the air of a poorly written movie.
“If all terrorists were this harmless, we’d all be living in a much less complicated world,” said Hamon, who lived in Camarillo before moving 12 years ago to King Salmon, on the Alaska Peninsula, 280 miles southwest of Anchorage.
“We’ve all been in shock,” said Mary Swain, who was friends with Nadia and baked the birthday cake for the Rockwoods’ son’s party last year. “I mean, kids would go over to her house all the time where she was teaching them ballet. She always went to library time, she went to story time…. Her mom would come over here from England and stay with her for a month at a time, and people got to be friends with her too.”
King Salmon is little more than a windy cluster of homes surrounding the airport, grocery, repair shops and a handful of bars and restaurants, with emphasis, like any fishing town, on the bars. Populated mainly by government employees year-round, it lies on limitless fields of grassy tundra and low stands of white spruce, not far from the fishing port of Naknek on Bristol Bay and world-famous Katmai National Park. Like most of Alaska, it is accessible only by air or small boat.
The National Weather Service paid for the couple’s move to King Salmon after hiring Paul in 2006 as a meteorological technician. They moved into a small tract of modern government housing populated by the many federal employees working for the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the weather service.
In the summertime, the populations of King Salmon and especially Naknek swell with thousands of itinerant fishermen and cannery workers. Nadia worked to become part of the close-knit permanent community, friends and neighbors said. Paul, because of his irregular work hours, often slept during the day and wasn’t as engaged in the community.
“He was a good employee. I never had any problems with him,” said Debra Elliott, his supervisor at the small, two-room building next to the airport, where the weather service shares an office with the Federal Aviation Administration. “He was very likable.”
The couple told neighbors they were Muslim but, other than avoiding pork, never made an issue of their religion. Paul had a beard, but the couple never prayed publicly. Nadia performed Christian and secular songs with the choir in performances at the local chapel; her husband attended with his video camera.
Loukas Barton, a National Park Service archeologist who lived next door, said the couple’s seeming reticence about discussing their religion may have been because they were, so far as anyone here can remember, the only Muslims who have ever lived in King Salmon.
“It’s not uncommon in a bar here to hear some moron say, ‘I hate Barack Obama because he’s … a terrorist and an Ay-rab.’ And people will swear up and down that he’s a Muslim. Which is really well-informed, right?” Barton said.
“So for families like them, you could imagine it’d be a little tough. Maybe that’s why Paul wasn’t all that social. I don’t think he’d be welcome down at Eddie’s, or any of the other bars in town. He certainly didn’t look Arab or Muslim, so those kind of comments would just fly freely.”
Hamon said Nadia was a fresh-faced, lively, fun-loving woman. She seemed determined to embrace rural life with enthusiasm.
“I met her and we just really hit it off. She became a really central part of our little group of girlfriends here,” Hamon said. “She did set-net fishing with us to catch salmon in summer. She learned to smoke and can salmon…. We learned to knit about the same time. We’d all get together and do crafts and stuff. We were all very welcome in each other’s homes.
“There was never a feeling with Nadia that there was anything funny or secretive going on. Paul was always very comfortable with us too,” she said.
The couple’s garage was a clearinghouse for fresh vegetables flown in from Washington state, and neighbors were free to let themselves in to pick up their allotments when no one was home.
The couple decided to leave because Paul had a disease of the inner ear that gave him frequent bouts of vertigo, friends said. Barton said Paul told him at the couple’s going-away yard sale that he also was growing tired of the annual clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies that descend each summer on King Salmon.
They were planning to move near Nadia’s mother in Kent, England, where Paul could get better medical treatment than at the small clinic in Naknek, neighbors said.
If U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Beistline accepts the plea agreements, Paul Rockwood Jr. will serve eight years in prison followed by three years of supervised release. Nadia Rockwood, who is free and in seclusion in Anchorage, would be sentenced to five years’ probation and return to England. Sentencing is set for Aug. 23.
Some of the targets on Rockwood’s list listened in by telephone to Wednesday’s plea hearing in Anchorage federal court, though none of them was identified and none of them spoke. The couple said very little, beyond entering their guilty pleas.
“We’ve known them since Zaid was a tiny little tyke,” Hamon said, referring to the couple’s son. “Everybody was sad they had to leave. Then when this came out, we were all completely shocked. It’s just impossible for me to imagine the friend that I knew being involved in anything like this.”