Suspects in Terror Bombing Plot: Drug Arrests and Prison Conversions
By AL BAKER | May 21, 2009
Four men from Newburgh, N.Y., were arrested on Wednesday night, charged with trying to carry out what they believed was a bomb attack on two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and the simultaneous shooting down of military aircraft in Newburgh.
Officials identified the leader as James Cromitie, a career criminal born in Brooklyn on Dec. 24, 1964. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said he had a record of 27 arrests, at least a dozen for drug offenses, beginning in 1987. He spent a total of 12 years in state prison, the most recent stint for a 1998 conviction for selling cocaine to an undercover officer behind a school in the Bronx.
He was paroled in 2004 and moved to Newburgh from the Bronx in March 2005.
His mother, Adele Cromitie, 65, said she had last seen her son three years ago, when he came to her apartment in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx, where she has lived for 26 years. It was the first time she had seen him in years.
He took her up to Newburgh and introduced her to the woman he was living with and said that he had become a Muslim. He was raised an Episcopalian, she said. In his first jail stint he listed his religion as Baptist; in the second and third ones, as Muslim.
Mr. Cromitie’s sister, Wanda Walker, said she was shocked to learn of her brother’s arrest while watching television Thursday morning. She said she was unaware that her brother may have had extreme political views. She had last spoken to him about two years ago when she thought he was working at a Wal-Mart or Kmart store.
“Right now, to me he’s, like, the dumbest person I ever came in contact with in my life,” Ms. Walker said. She added that as far as she knew, he was not a Muslim, but said “they do a little time in jail and they don’t eat pork no more.”
Ms. Cromitie and her daughter said that Mr. Cromitie was in the middle in a family of 10 children, and was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Ms. Cromitie said her son had a nickname as a child: “Fildee,” for a character in an old TV commercial who used to encourage throwing trash in trash cans by saying, “fill dee basket.”
His sister, Ms. Walker, remembered him as a jokester, always singing gospel songs or oldies and mimicking Smokey Robinson or Luther Vandross.
“You could be down, on your downest day and downest luck, and he’d make you laugh,” Ms. Walker said. “I’m still waiting for the punch line of all of this.”
Ms. Cromitie said Mr. Cromitie’s father, James Walker, left when James Cromitie was 3 years old. She said she had seen him only once in more than 20 years.
She raised 10 children on her own. “He never did anything for Fildee,” she said about the father. Although Mr. Cromitie was said to have told people his parents had lived in Afghanistan, Ms. Cromitie and Ms. Walker said the family had no ties to that country.
Those who lived around Mr. Cromitie on Lake Drive in Newburgh described his as a good-natured neighbor who never spoke of religion or politics.
“To hear this just blew my mind,” said one neighbor, who gave her name as Kristina L. “I would have never assumed he was a terrorist.”
Onta Williams, also known as Hamza, was born on June 29, 1976, in Newburgh, and his father left him when he was young. He went to prison in the mid-1990s on a drug charge, and there he converted to Islam, said an uncle, Richard Williams. In 2003 he went to federal prison on drug charges.
He was addicted to crack and cocaine since he was 15 or 16, a lawyer of his, Sol Lesser, said, according to a court transcript of his sentencing in April 2003.
Onta Williams’s mother died just before he was released from prison in July 2007, said Richard Williams. He also separated from his wife in the last three years.
He loves to eat, and was a good football player in junior high, his uncle said. He has a 14-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, and moved in with a new girlfriend and her son in Newburgh in February.
Mr. Williams said his nephew worked at CNS, a loading company, and spent his free time at a mosque or with fellow Muslims. The uncle said that he, too, served time in prison and became wary of the converted Muslims he met inside.
He said that because of this, he tried to warn his nephew, but to no avail. “I did not condone his religion, but when I talked to him about it he would say to me, ‘You can’t tell me anything about the Muslim religion because they’re my supporters and they’re my family,’ ” Richard Williams said. “He told me, ‘They’re more my family than you.’ ”
David Williams IV
In recent weeks Richard Williams said he rarely saw Onta Williams, despite pleas. Richard said he fell ill with flu and, worried that it was swine flu, begged Onta to come bring him medicine. Onta ignored him, he said.
“This ordeal, whatever was going on was the reason he wouldn’t come to visit me,” Richard Williams said.
David Williams IV
David Williams IV, not related to Onta Williams, was born on Feb. 9, 1981. His mother, Elizabeth McWilliams, said he was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with two younger brothers. He lived in East New York, Brooklyn, but spent a lot of time at his mother’s house in Newburgh, a few doors down from Mr. Cromitie.
At an appearance on Thursday in Federal District Court in White Plains, Eric Snyder, an assistant United States attorney, said Mr. Williams — referred to in court papers as Daoud and DL — was, “bragging, boasting, that he would shoot anyone who tried to stop him.”
According to the prosecutor, Mr. Williams bought a pistol in a Brooklyn housing project for $700 from a man Mr. Williams described to an F.B.I. informer as a “supreme Blood gang leader.” And he told the informant that if the informant hadn’t been there when he made the purchase, he would have killed the gun seller and kept the $700, said Mr. Snyder, the prosecutor.
His mother said he served time in prison on a drug charge. Arrested in 2003 with cocaine in his pocket, he was sentenced to up to three years in prison after pleading guilty, according to a transcript of his February 2005 parole hearing.
But now, she said, he had been getting his life together: He had worked for six months in the kitchen at Boulder Creek Steakhouse in the Spring Creek area of Brooklyn, but left two months ago; he studied computers at ASA Institute in Downtown Brooklyn.
He has a 7-year-old daughter and an infant son, and was recommitting to them, his mother said. She said he never talked about religion — and she said that though the family is Roman Catholic, he is Muslim, a religion he got from his father.
Co-workers at the steakhouse, in the Gateway Center Mall, said Mr. Williams was something of a ladies’ man. “He was always reading books on the line when it was slow,” said one co-worker who did not give her name because her bosses had forbade employees to talk to reporters. “Always reading an Arab book, the Koran, I think.”
Aahkiyaah Cummings, Mr. Williams’s aunt, said the last time she saw him, about a week ago, he seemed distant. Ms. Cummings said she gave Mr. Williams a hug outside his mother’s apartment and felt a change.
“You know your family, and one of the things I always looked forward to was a hug from David because there was such realness, such love,” she said. “But after I embraced him I said to my husband: ‘Something is not right. You need to talk to him.’ ”
Laguerre Payen was born in Haiti on Sept. 24, 1981, officials said. In 2002, he shot two 16-year-olds with a BB gun on Route 59 in Monsey, N.Y., according to his January 2005 parole hearing transcript; one was hit near his left eye, the other behind an ear, according to court records.
He served about 15 months in prison, where he reported himself as Roman Catholic, but converted to Islam there, according to Hamin Rashada, an assistant imam from the Islamic Learning Center of Orange County. He counseled Mr. Payen in a program to help former prisoners re-enter the outside world.
He was quiet and evasive, unemployed and poor, shifting between rooming houses and homelessness; but he was working to readjust to society, Mr. Rashada said. “He has some very serious psychological problems,” he said, adding that Mr. Payen was on medications and talked in circles.
The imam said Mr. Payen had a shallow and misguided understanding of Islam. He said he asked Mr. Payen if he had extremist views about the government. “He said, ‘Mr. Rashada, I can’t even get a job here because I’m not a citizen, I don’t involve myself in that type of stuff.’ ”
Mr. Payen has a 3-year-old son, who lives with his mother elsewhere in Orange County, Mr. Rashada said.
Immigration officials would not say if Mr. Payen had been in the country legally, and it was unclear when he came to the United States, but at his parole hearing in November 2004 he told the judge he was “a legal resident.”
Shortly thereafter, however, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began deportation proceedings because of his criminal conviction. An immigration judge issued a deportation order against Mr. Payen on Sept. 27, 2008, immigration officials said. But the judge’s order also blocked his immediate removal from the country, officials said, giving no further details.
In some cases, a judge may issue a deportation order and, at the same time, temporarily block the deportation if the defendant can prove that he would suffer severe persecution or torture in his homeland. It is unclear whether such an argument was used in Mr. Payen’s case.
While some people facing deportation, particularly violent criminals, are held in detention centers, others are released and ordered to report periodically to the authorities until their removal from the country.
Immigration officials said Mr. Payen had been released under these terms and had been reporting “regularly.”