Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Gun indictment stuns neighbors of Mason man

Officials allege Mideast link

By Steve Eder, seder@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — Neighbors in his Warren County neighborhood knew Atallah Adwani, a 45-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, as a quiet, hard-working businessman and dedicated family man.

        But federal authorities have another view. In a case that stunned long-time acquaintances of Mr. Adwani, federal authorities say he smuggled 470 handguns into his native country, Jordan, from 1995

        to 1998. If a jury agrees that he committed the crimes listed in a 16-count federal indictment, he could face a maximum penalty of 100 years in prison plus fines.

        Reached at his home in Mason, where he operates a convenience store, Mr. Adwani declined to comment at length, maintaining that he is an innocent man unfairly caught up in post-Sept. 11 fears about terrorism.

        “He has a squeaky-clean record and is an upstanding citizen,” said Charles Isaly, his attorney, while denying the allegations.

        For now, Mr. Adwani remains free as he awaits an Oct. 28 jury trial.

        The charges ruffled the middle-class neighborhood where Mr. Adwani, who has lived in the United States for 20 years, has lived the past decade with his wife and four children, driving a Jeep to and from work every day.

        Mr. Adwani was educated at the University of Toledo and has been involved in numerous restaurant ventures over the years, acquaintances say.

        After reading reports in June about Mr. Adwani's indictment in federal court, Teresa Bottger, who lives across the street, said neighbors were shocked that Mr. Adwani resided “right there in the neighborhood with kids.” With Sept. 11 in the backdrop, some neighbors shared fears that a man with terrorist connections could live among them.

        Wayne Davis, who lives two doors down from the Adwani family, says he has met the businessman a couple times and “he doesn't seem like a bad guy or anything. We've never had a problem with him.”

        But the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms allege that Mr. Adwani and Samaan Hattar — a Jordanian who remains at large overseas — on at least 21 occasions bought as many as 43 handguns at a time at Costello's Gun Shop in North College Hill. A warrant has been issued for Mr. Hattar's arrest, but the gun shop was not implicated.

        According to a 28-page indictment, the men bought about $214,000 worth of firearms in the United States before reselling them in Jordan or using them as gifts to gain favor in business arrangements in their homeland. They are charged with conspiracy, foreign travel to engage in firearms sales, lying about why they bought handguns, dealing firearms without a license and illegally shipping them out of the United States.

        The indictment alleges the two men wired money into local bank accounts from Lebanon and Jordan during the time in question to pay for the purchase of firearms. After they purchased the guns, they would ship the guns to Jordan by giving false documents about the items they were shipping, the indictment says.

        Christopher Tardio, an ATF agent who oversaw the investigation, said he is prohibited from commenting on specifics. He added, however, cases of gun smuggling are a rarity in Greater Cincinnati. According to Fred Alverson, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, agents are looking into the possibility that guns were used in crimes in the Middle East. In 1998, federal agents confiscated several weapons from Mr. Adwani's home.

        “The investigation was under way long before” the terrorist attacks, Mr. Alverson said, noting agents worked on the case for more than three years.

        The gun shop owner where the purchases were made has heard all kinds of speculation about Mr. Adwani.

        “A lot of people are reading into that (the guns were sold to) al-Qaida, but that isn't the case,” said Frank Costello, the owner of Costello's Gun Shop. Costello's is one of the oldest gun shops in Greater Cincinnati, standing on Galbraith Road for 23 years with clients that include some police agencies.

        Mr. Costello, who came to know Mr. Adwani as a regular customer, characterized him as a “super-nice individual, a real good guy.”

        Mr. Adwani, he said, passed all federally mandated background checks for criminal activity. “Mr. Adwani is a heck of a a nice man, a real good guy,” Mr. Costello said.

        Mr. Isaly said he can't help but question why the charges and investigation have come about now, as opposed to years ago.

        Authorities replied that they wanted to make sure the investigation was thorough before seeking indictments.

        But Mr. Isaly asked, “Why now? Why all the sudden does this become a big issue?”


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