Investigation of would-be truck driver widens

 Rhode Island News 

Antiterrorism officials have widened their investigation of Mohammed Yousuf Mullawala, a 28-year-old Indian national arrested last month after his behavior drew attention at a Smithfield tractor-trailer school. Authorities say Mullawala’s “problematic” cell-phone records and his apparent guise as an international student prompted the now-national probe.

“We’ve tied some of his cell-phone records to people of interest nationally” whose behavior points to “terrorist indicators,” said state police Maj. Steven O’Donnell. “They’re not your typical person’s cell-phone history … the volume of contacts obviously raises the level of suspicion.”

“We don’t know whether he’s a major player, a minor player, or any type of player” in the world of terrorism. “But the indicators lead us to believe that his behavior is not normal,” O’Donnell said.

“We are working with wherever the phone numbers take us, and to whatever cities,” said O’Donnell. That includes New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and elsewhere in the country. “We are interviewing everybody and anybody that may have a relation to him.”

Investigators are still studying Mullawala’s laptop computer for possible leads, and following his paper trail.

Mullawala’s interest in purchasing software on hazardous materials and his lack of interest in learning to back up a rig drew the attention of the trucking-school owners, and eventually, the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Mullawala has been held at the Suffolk County Detention Center in Boston since Dec. 5, on a civil immigration charge of violating his student visa.

The investigation now involves the Rhode Island State Police Fusion Center (a conglomerate of law enforcement overseen by state police) and reciprocal fusion centers in other states; the FBI’s Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force and the federal Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“He’s being cooperative, in the sense that he’s talking to us and responding to our questions” while he awaits his immigration hearing, O’Donnell said. “Whether his responses are accurate across the board is another question.”

Mullawala faces an immigration hearing at which time “we will ask that he be deported,” said O’Donnell.

A warrant was also issued for his arrest on a criminal charge of identity theft, alleging that Mullawala falsely said he was a Rhode Island resident in order to obtain a driver’s license here, O’Donnell said. The warrant was issued after Mullawala’s detention in Boston. The warrant has not been served “because he was already in prison,” said O’Donnell. Regardless, Mullawala’s case is a criminal investigation.

O’Donnell cited a totality of circumstances that put “a homing beacon” on Mullawala and led to the national investigation.

Besides the phone records, they include his enrollment in three separate colleges; his multiple addresses — only some of which he may have lived at — and his movements between Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey and coinciding succession of licenses in a three-or four-year period. All of these factors were discovered after his arrest.

The seven addresses include locations in Connecticut, Rhode Island, the Bronx, Queens and Long Island.

“We’re clear that he was here under the guise of being a student. He was not a student,” O’Donnell said. “Whatever his motives were, he applied to be a student, left school, went to another school, he left school. Not only did he sign up, but never went to school.”

Mullawala signed up for computer technology and/or English immersion classes at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and the City University of New York, but apparently attended either briefly or not at all, according to school administrators and law enforcement authorities.

“He got accepted, signed up, and moved on,” said O’Donnell. The first time may not have signaled anything unusual, “but a second time, third time, that doesn’t make sense.”

The succession of driver’s licenses and addresses are also questionable, O’Donnell said, “but the coup de grâce is the truck driver’s school. It’s so blatantly obvious. Even a novice — a person who has no knowledge of terrorist activity — would think this is strange behavior.”

Strange, O’Donnell said, in that Mullawala attended a 30-day school and left after the second day; was not especially concerned about learning how to back up a rig, and sought a commercial driver’s license that would allow him to transport hazardous materials.

The school’s owners told The Journal last month that Mullawala also came to class wearing business clothes and asked fellow students about the process for gaining FBI clearance for the HAZMAT license. He was also an inept driver, according to instructor Ed Mowry.

After Mullawala’s arrest, investigators seized a passport at one of seven addresses tied to Mullawala.

According to the passport, Mullawala is from Cotpally, India. He first entered this country on Sept 9, 2002.

“He was recruited overseas by a Johnson & Wales employee to come to this country to be a student,” said O’Donnell.

J&W spokeswoman Miriam Weinstein said Mullawala was enrolled in the School of Technology in fall 2002 through spring 2003; whether he actually attended classes was unclear. He gave an address of 181 Carpenter St., just a few blocks from the Providence Public Safety Complex, but investigators do not believe he ever lived there.

“He said he heard about the [Smithfield] tractor-trailer school while he was at Johnson & Wales,” O’Donnell said, and signed up for classes “because there was no waiting list, and the requirements to get a commercial driver’s license are less than New York.”

Last November, according to O’Donnell, Mullawala worked for a New York taxi-limousine service called NYC 2 WAY; another violation of his student visa. There he received W-2 forms, “and we’re looking into that with the IRS,” O’Donnell added.

Investigators are also knocking on doors.

Deborah Bashar of Shelton, Conn., recalled a recent visit by an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force agent out of New Haven, who showed her a photo of Mullawala and said he was wanted “for questioning.”

“I didn’t know his name. I saw his picture and recognized him from the picture,” she said in a phone interview last week.

Bashar said she and her fiancé, Frank Perry, first encountered the man they recognized from the photo when they were on a walk-through of the house in Connecticut they bought in 2003. Mullawala was living in a first-floor apartment that she believes he shared with four or five other people.

Asked how she was sure she knew the man in the photograph, Bashar said, “He was very strange. Just really weird. When we came to look at the house, he was just sitting in the room in the middle of the bed, cross-legged. I thought he was just sitting there. Frank said there was a TV on — there was like a blue screen. He was staring at a blank TV, and the picture was all blue.”

Authorities say Mullawala is a Muslim: asked if could have been praying, Bashar said, “It almost kind of looked like that,” except for the strangeness of the blank blue screen.

Mullawala did not say anything at that time, Bashar said.

But after she and Perry purchased the house, “we walked in the front door and he was standing in the living room. I was like, ‘What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here anymore.’ ”

“He just said he was getting some of his stuff, and I was like, ‘All of your stuff should have been out.’ He picked up his stuff … some bags or boxes … and walked out the door.” Since the FBI came to visit, Bashar has learned more about Mullawala and his arrest.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ So it’s all kind of weird to me. Kind of scary, actually.”

Investigators have also checked into Mullawala’s brief work history at NYC 2 Way, whose limousine fleet primarily operates in the Tri-State (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) area.

Driver relations manager Jeffrey Kong said in a phone interview that Mullawala worked for NYC 2 Way for one month, starting in early November of last year. His last paycheck was dated Dec. 3.

Like all of the 1,500 drivers, Mullawala was an independent contractor. He provided a driver’s license, from New Jersey, and a temporary license issued last March by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. He provided a cell phone number with a 401 area code. Mullawala grossed a little more than $3,300, for 82 trips.

He also apparently used the Lincoln Town Car he leased from NYC 2 WAY to drive to the Nationwide Tractor-Trailer School in Smithfield.

Kong said, “The detective [from Rhode Island] told me to pick up the car, because the car did belong to the company.” To avoid garage fees, “I hurried and arranged someone to pick up the car.”

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