Michigan Cell Phone Case Goes Federal

By Douglas J. Hagmann, Director

“Why should these three sweethearts be locked up?” -Odeh OTHMAN, wife of suspect

21 August 2006: On Friday, August 11, 2006, Adham Othman, 21, and his brother Louai Othman, 23, and their cousin Maruan Muhareb, 18, all of Mesquite, Texas, were stopped by police after an alert employee at a WalMart store in Caro, Michigan - a town located about 80 miles north of Detroit alerted authorities to suspicious bulk cellular telephone purchases by the men. When stopped by authorities, the men had about 1,000 cell phones in their vehicle along with a laptop computer containing data on other retail locations and their logos on a map for ease of recognition.

At the time they were stopped, the phones were being removed from their packaging and placed in one container, while the battery re-chargers and batteries were being placed in two other separate containers. The men also had a digital camera with over 20 surveillance type photos of the Mackinac Bridge - a strategic bridge that links Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. Accordingly, on Saturday, Tuscola County prosecutor Mark E. Reene charged three Texas men with collecting or providing materials for terrorist acts and surveilling a vulnerable target for terrorist purposes.

On August 14, 2006 - three days after their arrest - Daniel Roberts, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, issued a statement that said “there is no information to indicate that the individuals arrested have any direct nexus to terrorism.” This FBI statement was made despite the findings of police officials that the three men conducted surveillance of the Mackinac Bridge, and despite the existence of a “Joint Information Bulletin” that was issued on February 7, 2006 by the FBI and DHS about suspicious bulk cellular telephone purchases.

While under arrest in Tuscola county, the three men and their families secured the assistance of Imad HAMAD, the regional director of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee. In the wake of the FBI statement, HAMAD said of the Michigan arrests: “I hope this is a good lesson for local police not to spread fear and paranoia. I’m grateful that federal authorities provided such a clarification.” Not surprisingly, relatives and friends of the men called them “innocent entrepreneurs” buying cheap phones for marked-up resale, despite the obvious fact that this makes absolutely no economic sense. According to supporters, the three men are being targeted “because of their racial and religious heritage.”

The men, along with their families and friends also retained the well-known Nabih AYAD, a Dearborn Heights lawyer to fight for their release.

On Wednesday, August 16, 2006, however, a Tuscola County judge dismissed the state terrorism charges against the three men at the request of the county prosecutor. The men were then arraigned on the federal charges of conspiring to traffic in counterfeit goods and money-laundering on the same day.

A preliminary hearing had not yet been scheduled for the new charges, but the $30,000 cash bond, $10,000 for each defendant, has been collected by family and friends and is being posted today, according to their attorney, Nabih AYAD of Dearborn Heights, Michigan.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Binder also set specific conditions when he set bond Friday; each defendant must surrender his U.S. passport before his release, and each defendant will be required to wear an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet and be subjected to a curfew.

The federal complaint alleges the men defrauded consumers, TracFone Wireless Inc. and Nokia Corp. by buying the prepaid phones and removing TracFone’s proprietary software, making it possible to use the handsets with any cellular provider. The government alleges the altered phones are no longer genuine Nokia products even though they bear Nokia’s trademark.

The charge of conspiracy to commit fraud by trafficking counterfeit goods is punishable by up to five years in prison. Money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Meanwhile, Ayad said his clients are victims of racial profiling and authorities held them for days to try to find something to charge them with. He added that the men plan to work with the Michigan chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to ask the U.S. Attorney’s Office to dismiss all of the charges.