Twenty-eight years ago, more than 1,000 people gathered at a Catholic church in Orange to mourn Alex Odeh, a Palestinian American civil rights leader who was killed when a pipe bomb ripped apart his Santa Ana offices.
Odeh, who was 41 and the father of three, was remembered as a gentle, peaceful man, “an American in the highest sense of the word,” as former U.S. Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.), who spoke at the funeral, put it. The White House condemned the killing as an act of terrorism. The FBI told Congress that solving the murder was one of its highest priorities.
But nearly three decades on, the killing remains unsolved.
Now, civil rights groups and members of Congress, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), are calling on the FBI to do more to solve the case.
“I believe the Odeh family deserves closure,” the Orange County congresswoman wrote in a letter to Atty. Gen. Eric Holder earlier this year.
Odeh was born in what was then the British mandate of Palestine, but his family left to escape the violence and he became a naturalized American citizen. He settled in Orange County, where he was a vocal critic of Israeli policies against Palestinians. He became regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a civil rights organization founded by Abourezk in 1980.
Odeh was dedicated to seeking common ground with members of other religious and ethnic communities, said Richard Habib, a retired businessman and former board member of the ADC. On the day Odeh was killed he was scheduled to speak at a synagogue in Fountain Valley.
“Alex was really a pioneer in trying to move people on both sides, on many sides, of this conflict toward dialogue, toward conversation,” said Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a Freeman Fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a New York-based peace group.
“And he paid with his life for that.”
About one year into the investigation, an FBI official told a congressional subcommittee that Jewish extremists were suspected in the bombing. Then-Assistant FBI Director Oliver B. Revell said the agency had identified suspects in the case whom its agents were pursuing. But no charges were ever filed.
Over the years, law enforcement sources have said the investigation focused on onetime members of the militant Jewish Defense League. One potential suspect is now serving life in prison in California for another bomb slaying. Others live in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In 1996, the FBI offered a $1-million reward for information that would help solve the Odeh crime. In 2005 and again in 2010, it publicized the reward. But nothing came of the efforts.
All the while, Sami Odeh, the victim’s brother, did his best to keep the case from being forgotten.
“The entire trauma, the mechanics of how to deal with it, the newspapers, the burial and everything else went to Sami,” Habib said.
When Sami Odeh died in June, never having known who killed his brother, many of his friends and fellow advocates felt they owed it to him to push the investigation forward, said Raed Jarrar, director of communications and advocacy at the ADC.
The ADC has teamed with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland-based group, to launch a petition asking the Justice Department to bring Odeh’s killers to justice.
Additionally, Sanchez and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) are urging the department to step up its investigation.
In July, about one month after Sanchez wrote to Holder asking for an update on the case, she received a letter from the department saying that the case remains open, the FBI continues to try to identify suspects and that agency policy is not to release information on ongoing investigations.
Sanchez, who represents the district in which Odeh was killed, said she found the response unsatisfactory.
“It’s been 28 years and we still don’t have any information. There’s been no movement on this. I just felt that a letter that says, ‘Sorry, we’re still investigating’ 28 years later is sort of a ‘Hey, we don’t care, go away’ letter. So yeah, we want to know what’s going on,” she said.
She is now seeking signatures from members of Congress on a letter that will ask the Justice Department for specific details about the case, including possible suspects and steps taken to interview them.
Conyers, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he will sign the letter and may ask for a congressional hearing on the case.
In a conference call with reporters last week, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous likened the investigation to the three-decade-long effort to convict the man who killed Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist assassinated in 1963.
“Whenever someone who works for justice is killed, whenever a leader in a civil rights organization is killed, it is the responsibility of our country as a whole, the civil rights community as a whole, to stand up and demand that their killers be brought to justice,” he said.