Victor Lento still remembers very clearly the face of the stranger who pulled a revolver on him after the two exchanged heated words in a road-rage incident on a busy Florida highway more than 10 years ago. “When he shot at me, he had no reaction,” says Lento, a pizzeria manager, who escaped unscathed. “Like he was just going to pick up the paper.”
Perhaps it was that same cold-blooded anger that, says the government, appealed to recruiters for the terrorist group al-Qaeda. On June 10 the Justice Department announced that on May 8 it had arrested Jose Padilla, now using the name Abdullah al-Muhajir, as he arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare airport from Zurich. The Brooklyn-born U.S. citizen, officials say, was scheming to detonate a dirty bomb—a crude explosive device designed to spread radioactive particles and terror—on U.S. soil.
Just how an American of Puerto Rican descent became an alleged al-Qaeda operative remains a mystery. Although Padilla, 31, has a lengthy criminal record, “he’s just the opposite of what they are saying on TV,” insists Cherie Stultz, 34, of Greenacres, Fla., who was married to Padilla from 1996 until March 2001.
Yet he was not unfamiliar with life’s seamier side. Raised by a single mother who moved to Chicago when he was 4, Padilla later told police that he had joined a street gang. “He was mean, always fighting,” says a neighbor. “He liked to pick on people.” He was arrested in connection with a 1985 armed robbery turned homicide and at least four other times on weapons and battery charges before the run-in with Lento, for which he served nearly a year in a Florida jail. His journey over the past decade and his conversion to Islam remain as murky as his future. Classified as an enemy combatant, he is being held at a naval jail in South Carolina. So far the government has announced neither charges nor plans to try him. “I can’t believe the guy turned out to be a terrorist,” says Lento. “He didn’t look like bin Laden.”