By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Illustration by Bob AulJust two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., the terror of Sept. 11 hit home in Orange County with the arrest of a man with a portrait of Osama bin Laden tattooed on his chest. According to a Sept. 27 Los Angeles TimesOrange County edition article, the man was being held at the county jail while the FBI investigated his possible involvement with Osama bin Laden and the terrorist network Al Qaeda.
"It's a wake-up call for all of us to be vigilant," Orange County Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo reportedly said at the time. "We don't believe this . . . lets us know there is a terrorism cell in Orange County. But it's an indication to us that the streets . . . of this county are not entirely exempt from any connection to terrorism."
Well, not exactly. First of all, it's not yet a crime in the United States to tattoo yourself with bin Laden's mug. Neither is it true that the tattooed gentleman was, as Jaramillo implied, "on the streets." In fact, he was sent "from state prison" to Orange County Jail, Sheriff's officials later acknowledged, which is where deputies discovered his tattoo.
Following Jaramillo's alarming announcement that a possible terrorist had been plucked from our streets, news about the mystery man with the scary tattoo quickly led to follow-up coverage in newspapers ranging from The Orange County Register to the London Times. But just as quickly as it started, the international coverage of this sensational local story disappeared.
In tipping off the Times, was Jaramillo—whose job is to keep his boss, Sheriff Michael Carona, from saying anything embarrassing or stupid—trying to take credit for an arrest his department never made? Or was he simply trying to reassure a jittery public about a seemingly terrorism-related arrest that—once again—never occurred?
The Weekly spent several days finding out whatever happened to the mystery man with the tattoo. Getting answers wasn't easy. Various local law-enforcement agencies gave contradictory answers, with some responses changing radically over the course of just a few hours. Part of the reason may be that law-enforcement officials were understandably tightlipped about the case, given the FBI's supposed investigation of the suspect in question.
Jaramillo, who was attending a convention in Canada last week, was unable to speak with us. But Jon Fleischman, the OC sheriff's deputy director of public affairs, told the Weekly on Oct. 22 that he could not reveal the suspect's name or current legal status. Three days later, Fleischman released the individual's name. To protect the man's privacy—for reasons that should already be obvious—the Weekly is withholding his name.
Long before we learned the arrestee's identity, Fleischman had eventually acknowledged that the man with the bin Laden tattoo, whose arrest Jaramillo had described as a "wake-up call" for Orange County, was not going to face terrorism charges.
"I guess the only thing I can tell you about him is that there appears to be no connection between him and the attacks on Sept. 11," Fleischman said on Oct. 22. "The FBI told us that a few weeks ago."
So was the man still being held in the county jail? Fleischman wouldn't say, telling us to call the FBI for more information.
A few minutes after we finished talking with Fleischman, Matt McLaughlin of the FBI's media office in Los Angeles said of the bin Laden tattoo arrestee, "We're not interested in that guy. If we had any interest in him, we would be seeking to follow up with him, but we're not. I believe he was arrested on local charges. . . . That guy was in county custody the whole time.
"Part of the problem may be we advise any law-enforcement agencies that if they have contact with someone we're interested in—who is under investigation or who we want as a material witness—there is a gag order on commenting on the person," McLaughlin added.
The following day, after we informed Fleischman that the FBI didn't mind if the Sheriff's Department updated the Weeklyon the bin Laden tattoo case, the public-affairs deputy agreed to call the county jail and find out if the mystery man was still there. He never called back.
We called Fleischman again the next day, and he told us, "The ultimate conclusion of what I found out is that this gentleman is not in our jail anymore. But I can tell you the gentleman was in jail for criminal acts not relating to terrorism."
On Oct. 25, Fleischman's department changed its story once again. Apparently, he told us, alert local law-enforcement authorities hadn't actually arrested the suspect on the streets of Orange County after all.
"He was with us [in the county jail] from Sept. 19 to Oct. 19," Fleischman said. "He came to us from state prison. We do not know why he was in state prison."
Fleischman added that the man's tattoo had in fact been discovered by sheriff's deputies working inside the county jail during a routine physical body search of all inmates who enter the facility. "It's standard operating procedure when somebody comes into our jail to look for identifiable symbols," he explained.
According to the Orange County district attorney's office, there is no record in their files of any ongoing prosecution involving the man with the bin Laden tattoo—just two five-year-old violations of the vehicle code.
Despite not having been taken off the streets for anything related to terrorism, the man and his controversial body art will likely remain behind bars as long as can possibly be justified. Here's why: on Oct. 25, the day before the U.S. Congress passed President George W. Bush's sweeping, post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism laws, Attorney General John D. Aschcroft told the U.S. Conference of Mayors, "Let the terrorists among us be warned: if you violate a local law, we will . . . work to make sure that you are put in jail and be kept in custody as long as possible. . . . We will seek every prosecutorial advantage. We will use our weapons within the law and under the Constitution to protect life and enhance security for America."
Although the local, national and international media circulated the tale of the arrest of the bin Laden tattoo man, not one of those news outlets ever followed up to point out there's absolutely no evidence the man was a terrorist or that any Al Qaeda cells might be operating in Orange County. In fact, the man described in newspapers around the world as a possible terrorist isn't even here anymore. After spending a month in the county jail and facing a judge on a prior arrest for driving without a license, he was sent south to San Diego County, where he now faces yet another courtroom hearing on yet another arrest. The crime in question? Driving under the influence of alcohol.