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FBI Investigating Fiery Car Death

February 13, 2002

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ The focus of an investigation into a fraudulent driver’s license scheme with possible terrorism ties has shifted to the mysterious death of a chief suspect, whose car went up in flames a day before her court hearing.

Katherine Smith, 49, was found burned beyond recognition early Sunday in a car crash that a prosecutor described as ``most unusual and suspicious.″ Her arraignment in federal court was scheduled for Monday.

``Was it an accident? Was it a suicide? Or was it something else?″ FBI spokesman George Bolds said Tuesday. ``It’s not clear what happened exactly.″

The car Smith was driving ran off the road and struck a utility pole just north of the Mississippi state line, Highway Patrol Lt. Col. Mark Fagan said.

Smith’s car ``was immediately engulfed in flames,″ but authorities do not know whether the fire started before or after the crash. The body was so badly burned it took authorities until Tuesday to confirm Smith’s identity.

FBI agent J. Suzanne Nash said the gas tank did not explode and the car was only slightly dented from the crash.

Smith and the five men _ all Middle Easterners _ were charged last week by federal officials with conspiracy to get Tennessee driver’s licenses under false pretenses.

The FBI was also investigating whether Smith’s co-defendants have connections to the Sept. 11 attacks or other terrorist ties.

A federal court hearing for three of the men, Mostafa Said Abou-Shahin, Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad and Mohammed Fares, was set for Wednesday afternoon. Authorities did not give their ages and said they admitted being in the country illegally.

The two others _ Khaled Odtllah, 31, and Sakhera Hammad, 24 _ were being held without bond following a Monday court hearing.

Smith and the five men were arrested Feb. 5 after they left a driver testing station in Memphis. Prosecutors said Smith had processed four driver’s license applications that morning based on false information provided by Odtllah.

Smith, a license examiner for nine years, told authorities that Odtllah was a friend who had asked for help getting licenses six or seven times, Nash said.

Nash said that when Sakhera Hammad was arrested, investigators found a Sept. 5 visitor’s pass for the World Trade Center in his wallet. He told authorities he was a plumber and worked on the center’s sprinkler system. He said Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad was a cousin who worked with him, Nash said.

Federal authorities learned that Odtllah drove to Memphis from New York City on Sept. 11, Nash said.

Nash said in court Monday there was no reason to believe any of the five men was a terrorist.

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