Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Man free in theft ring case


Terror tie uncertain

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A man accused of leading a Cincinnati theft ring was freed from jail Tuesday as police backed away from earlier statements linking him to terrorism.

Omran Saleh, the 55-year-old businessman at the center of the controversy, was released after he posted a $100,000 bond.

His release came less than a week after Cincinnati Police charged Saleh and at least 19 others with being part of a ring that fenced stolen goods through a dozen neighborhood markets and sent the profits to bank accounts in the Middle East.

When the stores were raided last Thursday, Police Chief Tom Streicher said the group took in as much as $37 million and "there is great suspicion some of the money was used to fund terrorism."

Five days later, however, several of the defendants have posted bond, others have had their bond amounts reduced and federal authorities have made no move to file terror-related charges.

Attorneys for some of the men on Tuesday said authorities threw around accusations of terrorism because the accused men are of Middle Eastern descent.

"It's irresponsible and unethical," said Cincinnati attorney Kenneth Lawson. "I think it's more hype than anything else. There's absolutely no evidence of terrorism."

FBI spokesman Jim Turgal said agents have been working with police throughout the investigation, but he would not comment on the likelihood of federal charges.

In other cases around the country, FBI and Justice Department officials have led the way in the investigation and prosecution of terror suspects. So far, that is not true in the Cincinnati case.

"If there was evidence of terrorism, (U.S. Attorney General) John Ashcroft would be all over TV," Lawson said.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said the investigation is continuing, but there is so far no connection to terrorism. "If there are financial links to terrorists, they have not been established," Allen said.

Police officials refused on Tuesday to discuss any evidence supporting that claim. Police spokesman Kurt Byrd said federal authorities will have to decide whether the money sent overseas ended up with terrorists.

"We don't have any hard evidence of that yet," Byrd said. "That's something we may not ever know."

E-mail dhorn@enquirer.com.




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