Al Qaeda ice cream man from California 'terror town' pleads guilty of trying to smuggle cash to Pakistan
June 1, 2006
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- An ice cream vendor charged with lying to the FBI about his son's attendance at a terrorist training camp pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, closing another chapter in a terror probe focused on a town inhabited by hundreds of people of Pakistani origin.
Umer Hayat, 48, of Lodi pleaded guilty Wednesday of trying to smuggle $28,000 in cash to Pakistan three years ago rather than face a retrial that was set to begin Monday. Prosecutors agreed to drop charges that he lied to the FBI and to recommend he serve no more jail time after spending nearly a year in custody.
"This outcome was not, of course, the one most desired by the government," U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said. "However, what is for certain is that our region is safer today than it was one year ago."
Hayat likely would have faced only a few additional months behind bars if convicted of the two lying charges, Scott said.
Hayat smiled as he left the federal courthouse, but would not comment.
"He's happy. It's over. Obviously he wants to move on with his life at this point," said defense lawyer Johnny Griffin III. "From day one we've maintained that Umer Hayat is not a terrorist, he had no involvement with terrorist related conduct or activities."
Hayat's son, Hamid Hayat, 23, faces at least 30 years in prison for supporting terrorism by attending an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan in 2003 and lying to the FBI. His sentencing was postponed indefinitely.
Umer Hayat's first trial ended in April in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked in his case. He remains under house arrest until his Aug. 18 sentencing.
The government's investigation into Lodi's 2,500-member Pakistani community began after agents received a tip in 2001 that local businesses were sending money to terrorist groups abroad.
That probe produced no results, but it eventually led to the Hayats after an informant who had targeted a pair of local imams befriended Hamid Hayat.
In recorded phone calls from the younger Hayat in Pakistan, the informant urged him to attend a terrorist camp, though defense lawyers claimed there was no evidence he ever went to such a camp.
The government presented no evidence of a terrorism network during the nine-week trial, but centered its case on videotaped confessions the two Hayats gave to FBI agents.
Their lawyers claimed the confessions came after hours of leading questioning, and that their clients merely told the FBI what they thought the agents wanted to hear.
The investigation became public a year ago when authorities arrested the Hayats and detained two local clerics. The religious leaders and one of their sons were later deported for immigration violations.
Hayat admitted in court that he lied in April 2003 when he denied his family was carrying more than $10,000 in cash when he was detained on a jetway at Washington-Dulles International Airport.
Federal agents found two white envelopes containing $5,000 each in his pants, two similar envelopes in his son's pockets and $8,053 being carried by Umer Hayat's wife, Oma Salma Hayat.
Most of the money was eventually returned, minus a penalty for the legal violation of failing to declare the cash. Umer Hayat gave several explanations, including that his family was bringing cash from several families to relatives and that he planned to give cash as wedding gifts for his son and daughter.
Prosecutors said it was on that trip to Pakistan that Hamid Hayat attended the terrorist training camp, though Scott said there is no indication the money was to be used for any terrorist activity.
The Hayats were the only people criminally charged in the terror probe, though Scott would not rule out the possibility of additional charges against other Lodi residents.
Asked if the investigation was important in the so-called war on terror, Scott said it had disrupted a potential problem in Lodi.
"Do I think defeating the insurgency in Iraq was on the same scale? Obviously, those are of two different magnitudes," he said.
Sacramento -- A Lodi ice cream truck driver whose son was convicted last month of providing support to terrorists agreed Wednesday to plead guilty to unrelated charges of lying to customs agents.
The plea deal struck in U.S. District Court means Umer Hayat, a 48-year-old father of four, will avoid a retrial that had been scheduled for next week on more serious charges -- that he lied to the FBI about his son's terrorist training in Pakistan. He faced up to 16 years in prison if convicted.
Just before 5 p.m. Wednesday, Hayat stood next to his attorney, Johnny Griffin, before U.S. District Judge William Shubb. With his hands in his pockets and his head bowed as he listened to an Urdu interpreter, he pleaded guilty to lying during an April 2003 incident at Washington's Dulles International Airport.
Hayat, who was on his way to his native Pakistan, said he had nothing to declare and then told a series of lies about the $28,000 in cash that he and his family members were found to be carrying, prosecutors said.
Griffin said some of the money was for marriages for two of Hayat's children, and the rest was being passed from friends in California to their relatives in Pakistan. The government later returned almost all of the money.
"Umer's happy," Griffin said after the court hearing. "We've been going back and forth all day (on whether to plead guilty). The sticking point was that the government wanted a plea related to a terrorist activity, and we said no."
McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney for California's Eastern District, said the plea agreement was not "the one most desired by the government," but noted that a jury of eight women and four men had, last month, split nearly evenly on two counts of lying to FBI agents.
"I have been a prosecutor for many years and I'm well acquainted with the challenges of retrying a case with those sorts of juror splits," Scott said.
Hayat, a naturalized citizen who came to the United States 30 years ago, is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 18 to time served and three years of probation. He spent 330 days behind bars before he was recently placed on home detention.
His 23-year-old son, Hamid Hayat, faces 30 to 39 years in prison after a separate jury convicted him on three counts of lying and, more significantly, providing material support to terrorists. Prosecutors said he trained at a terrorist camp in Pakistan and returned to the United States to await orders to kill Americans. His attorneys are asking for a new trial on grounds that include juror misconduct.
The dual trials in Sacramento centered on the FBI's videotaped interrogations of the father and son at the FBI's office in the capital. The younger Hayat, already on the FBI's radar because of comments he made to an informant, had just returned from a two-year trip to Pakistan.
Prosecutors said Umer Hayat lied about his son's training before admitting at length that he knew about it. Prosecutors described both men's confessions as clear proof of guilt, but defense attorneys said the men had no experience with camps and were manipulated into telling agents whatever they wanted to hear.
The elder Hayat was arrested even though he spoke voluntarily with FBI agents and, later, agreed to wear a hidden microphone in an effort to elicit incriminating statements from a pair of Pakistani clerics who were in Lodi on religious-worker visas. The clerics were arrested in the Lodi probe and later agreed to be deported rather than fight immigration charges.
"We may never know for certain their long-range plans," Scott said Wednesday of the Hayats and the Pakistani clerics. "However, what is for certain is that our region is safer today than it was one year ago."
Griffin said the elder Hayat will press for his son's release and may go back to selling ice cream, but acknowledged that the community is split on the eye-opening allegations against him.
"It's going to be tough," Griffin said. "But at least he doesn't have to move on with the big 'T' hanging over his head -- terrorism."