Sept. 11 Fake ID Suspect Flees U.S.
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PATERSON, N.J. (AP) _ 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 Mohamed El-Atriss, who faces charges of manufacturing and distributing fraudulent documents and conspiracy.
El-Atriss, 43, 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.
FBI spokeswoman Sandra Carroll said investigators questioned El-Atriss after the Sept. 11 attacks and found no evidence he knew of the hijackers’ plans.
El-Atriss, a naturalized U.S. citizen, 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.
Inside the Paterson office, investigators found large rolls of plastic laminating sheets and backings used to make driver’s licenses in several 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. Authorities said they believe he sold as many as 18 fake IDs per day, and that his office also made counterfeit New Jersey license plates and auto title certificates.
Three employees at El-Atriss’ stores _ Clara Ortubia, 28, Yanelis Fabian, 32, and Elizabeth Valeria Pollero, 30 _ were arrested during the raids on the same charges El-Atriss faces.
Five minutes before the raid, El-Atriss called the Paterson store and told employees he was in Egypt and would return to the United States in a few days, Speziale said.
Investigators were unsure whether the flight he took left on Tuesday or Wednesday. Authorities last saw El-Atriss 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.
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.
According to police, investigators determined El-Atriss recently made three wire transfers _ $8,000, $4,000 and $17,000 _ to the Arab National Bank in Saudi Arabia. Authorities said they do not know what the money was to be used for.