Agents of terror leave their mark on Sin City
Las Vegas workers recall the men they can't forget
Thursday, October 4, 2001
(10-04) 04:00 PST Las Vegas -- Samantha remembers the killer settling into the crushed red velvet chair, staring blankly up at her while she undulated her hips inches from his face.
He didn't look evil, she said. Not even interesting. Certainly not like a man who would, just three months later, hijack a jet and smash it into the World Trade Center to slaughter thousands of people in a suicidal fireball.
To the 29-year-old stripper, Marwan Al-Shehhi simply looked "cheap."
"Some big-man terrorist, huh?" Samantha said this week as she took a breather from the two-dozen lap dances she bestows daily upon the lonely at the Olympic Garden Topless Cabaret. "He spent about $20 for a quick dance and didn't tip more."
She stopped and bit her lip, throbbing rock music rattling the dimly lit crystal ball overhead while other "girls" in G-strings gyrated for grinning tourists.
"I'm glad he's dead with the rest of them, and I don't like feeling something like that," Samantha finally said. "But he wasn't just a bad tipper - - he killed people."
Samantha would have never given Al-Shehhi another thought if she hadn't seen his photo in a news article naming him as one of five Sept. 11 hijackers who stayed in Las Vegas not long before they pulled off the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Just why the five chose Vegas is still somewhat of a mystery, and FBI agents are knocking on doors up and down The Strip -- the casino-studded road cutting north to south -- to try to solve it.
But one thing seems clear. The self-styled warriors for Allah -- who believed their hijackings would earn them eager virgins in heaven -- engaged in some decidedly un-Islamic sampling of prohibited pleasures in America's reputed capital of moral corrosion.
The fact that she played a role in that sampling was disturbing enough to Samantha, but after recognizing 23-year-old Al-Shehhi's bearded face, she had another shock coming. It turned out one of his accomplices, Mohamed Atta -- thought to be the ringleader of the entire four-jet attack that demolished the twin towers and part of the Pentagon -- stayed in the cheap Econo Lodge just a couple of blocks from the Olympic along The Strip.
Now, she can think of little else.
"Some of the girls here remember a couple of those guys coming in here in August, too," said Samantha, who like three other Olympic "Samanthas" preferred that her family not read her real name in a newspaper. "It's freaking us all out.
"For me, what I remembered most was the guy with the beard. You don't forget a face in this business."
All of the women, she said, recall the men the same way: quiet, well- groomed, polite, light drinkers -- and the opposite of big spenders.
AT LEAST SIX TRIPS MADE
In addition to Atta, 33, and Al-Shehhi, investigators are telling business owners that Nawaq Alhamzi, age unknown, Ziad Jarrahi, 26, and Hani Hanjour, 29,
stayed in Las Vegas off and on between May and August. They say the group -- which chillingly included a hijacker from each of the four flights -- made at least six trips here.
So far, according to sources familiar with the investigation, the supposition is that this was just a convenient central meeting spot to hatch their plots because tourists of all ethnicities blend easily here, and flights are frequent and cheap. As for hanging out at the Olympic Club, the sprightliest strip joint on a dreary stretch of the old downtown known mainly for $10 street hookers and easy heroin: "It makes sense they would come here, because we're a nice place for everyone, every ethnicity," said Manager Joe Algere.
The meeting-spot theory was reinforced last week by the discovery that Lotfi Raissi, a pilot arrested in London on suspicion of flight-training four of the hijackers, also stayed in Vegas in June when some of them were here. Sources familiar with the investigation believe Raissi trained at least one hijacker at a flight school in Arizona. None of the flight schools in Vegas has so far unearthed records of any of the suspects training here.
However, locals and investigators are still exploring two main theories for why the radical Islamic killers gathered in a city they undoubtedly saw as a den of infidels wallowing in Western wretchedness.
One, which is generating plenty of fear but seems to have no factual underpinning, is that they planned to crash planes into something big like the fake Statue of Liberty, or the 109-story Stratosphere Casino tower near the Econo Lodge.
The other is that the five reckoned as long as they had to meet, they might as well do it where they could gamble and indulge in the same forbidden frolics some of them reportedly found at the Pink Pony strip joint in Florida over the summer.
The portrait of their time here gets a little fuller with every new sighting report that pops up -- though it's anyone's guess how well the stories will hold up over time.
McCarran Airport Payless Car Rental Manager Suzanne Gerfy told The Chronicle this week that her staff had found receipts showing Jarrahi "and a few of the others" had rented cars over the summer, and they turned the receipts over to the FBI. Jarrahi -- who investigators believe piloted United Airlines Flight 93 on its fatal dive into a Pennsylvania field -- wrote he was staying at the high-rolling Circus Circus casino resort, which is on the gaudier end of The Strip than the Econo Lodge.
"They all listed Florida driver's licenses and very much fit in, pretty clean-cut guys," said Gerfy. "It's a shame. It would have been better if they were more criminal looking and easier to spot for something wrong."
Circus Circus staff referred calls to management, who did not return messages.
SOME SAY THEY SERVED HIJACKERS
Clerks at a Starbucks near the University of Nevada at Las Vegas also say they served high-octane java to at least one of the killers, and a pizza joint reportedly served them slices -- with ham left off by request. Some folks at the Chapel of Love quickie-marriage emporium even swear they saw Atta driving a cab.
FBI agents aren't talking about what they're finding -- "for obvious reasons," said Las Vegas office Special Agent Gayle Jacobs. But area Muslims have heard enough. They are tired of association with mass murderers.
"True Muslims don't drink, don't gamble, don't go to strip clubs," said Dr. Osama Haikal, president of the board of directors of the Islamic Foundation of Nevada. "These things are a sin, just like what they did in New York and Washington is a sin."
If the hijackers copped a lap dance or even a watery scotch in most strict Islamic countries, they would be flogged, Haikal said -- and they would be executed for the horror they wrought. Dying doesn't mean they won't be held accountable.
"Wherever they are now, I'm sure they are getting punished," he said.
E-mail Kevin Fagan at email@example.com.
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