Suspect in ID sales to hijackers flees U.S.
Published: Thursday, August 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 1, 2002 at 12:00 a.m.
PATERSON, N.J. - A man who allegedly sold fake IDs to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers apparently fled the country for Egypt just before authorities came to arrest him in a raid on his home and businesses Wednesday, investigators said.
Interpol was notified to be on the lookout for Egyptian immigrant Mohamad El-Atriss.
El-Atriss sold a fake ID card to Khalid Almihdhar, who was on the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon, and one to Abdul Aziz Alomari, who was aboard one of the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center, Sheriff Jerry Speziale said.
Speziale and FBI spokeswoman Sandra Carroll said they do not know whether El-Atriss knew of the hijackers' plans.
El-Atriss operated businesses in Paterson and Elizabeth where he sold the identification cards, Speziale said. Authorities raided his home and business Wednesday afternoon and were told El-Atriss had taken a flight from Newark to Egypt, the sheriff said.
Five minutes before the raid, El-Atriss called a New Jersey phone number from somewhere outside the country, Speziale said.
Authorities were unsure if the flight he took left Tuesday or Wednesday. El-Atriss was last seen by authorities in New Jersey on Monday, investigators said.
In Cairo, Egyptian government officials refused to comment.
Wednesday's raids followed a four-month investigation by sheriffs in northern New Jersey, the Paterson police and the FBI, Speziale said. El-Atriss had not been under round-the-clock surveillance, sheriff's Lt. Robert Weston said.
Speziale would not say why authorities believe El-Atriss was the one who sold IDs to the hijackers.
Three employees at his stores - Clara Ortubia, 28, Yanelis Fabian, 32, and an unidentified person - were arrested during the raids and charged with manufacturing and distributing fraudulent documents and conspiracy.
Inside the Paterson office, investigators found large rolls of plastic laminating sheets and backings used to make driver's licenses in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and several other states. A sign outside the building identified it as a provider of international driver's licenses and ID cards, notary public, fax and passport services and a money transfer station.
Authorities said investigators have gathered 75 fake IDs that El-Atriss generated and sold for as much as $800 each, and believe he made many more.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Paper Trail, began after police in northern New Jersey started finding similar fake IDs, Speziale said.
Authorities were tipped to El-Atriss by a St. Paul, Minn., company after he contacted it about paying cash for a high-speed copier capable of embossing seals.
El-Atriss never bought the copier from Minnesota but contacted a Paterson company about a similar purchase, Speziale said. That company became suspicious and called the FBI when El-Atriss offered to pay cash for the machine, the sheriff said.
FBI agents posed as merchants at the store and sold El-Atriss the copier, Speziale said. Law enforcement authorities also bought fake IDs at El-Atriss' stores.
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