Activists and Family Members Keep the Memory of Alex Odeh Alive, 30 Years After His Unsolved Assassination

Brian Feinzimer
Brian Feinzimer
Statue of Alex Odeh in Santa Ana
If you were able to identify your and others' misfortunes I would have brought out an extraordinary human being of you —from a poem by Alex Odeh

On the morning of Oct. 11, 1985, Norma Odeh made breakfast for her husband, Alex, in their Orange home. The night before, KABC-TV Channel 7 had interviewed Odeh, West Coast regional director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and one of the U.S.'s most prominent Arab-American activists. The interviewer wanted his opinions about the Achille Lauro hijacking and the subsequent killing of 69-year-old wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer that had happened just a couple of days before.

A camera crew filmed Alex at the ADC offices in Santa Ana. He condemned the hijacking, as well as terrorism in general. But he also claimed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) wasn't responsible for the attack and called Yasser Arafat "a man of peace" for helping to secure the release of hostages.

"After he came home, we watched it together," Norma recalls. "I hope to God nobody does anything to you," she told him then. Alex's sister also phoned him with her worries after seeing the news segment. He moaned to his wife about how KABC had simplified his nuanced statements into a soundbite about Arafat, then went to bed.

The interview was still on Norma's mind the next morning when Alex kissed her goodbye. A long day awaited him, including a speech at Congregation B'nai Tzadek, a Jewish synagogue in Fountain Valley.

Odeh arrived at the ADC's second-story offices in Santa Ana around 9 a.m. His assistant usually opened up in the morning, but she was running errands that day for an upcoming banquet. As Odeh turned the doorknob, a rigged 30-pound pipe bomb exploded, blowing off his legs. Shards from the shattered windows rained onto the street. Only the concrete floor saved the debris-strewn office from total obliteration. Paramedics hoisted Odeh's charred body onto a stretcher and rushed him to Western Medical Center in Santa Ana; doctors pronounced him dead roughly two hours after the attack. He was 41 years old.

Around the time Odeh passed away, Norma was visiting a friend. The woman was sobbing uncontrollably on the front porch of her home, saying a bomb had struck an office in Santa Ana, perhaps the ADC, and someone had been killed—only she didn't know who. Norma's heart sped as rapidly as her thoughts as she raced to where her husband worked. "I couldn't believe what I saw," she says. "The police wouldn't let me in and told me Alex was at the hospital." She drove to Western Medical Center, where Alex's brother, Sami, delivered the bad news.

Odeh's assassination barely made a blip in national headlines, lost in the aftermath of Klinghoffer's murder. Multiple law-enforcement agencies, including the Santa Ana Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), gathered at the scene of the crime. No group took credit for the bombing, and law enforcement eventually lagged on the case, never making an arrest or publically naming suspects. Odeh's murder remains unsolved 30 years later.

But if Odeh's killers were banking on his death and the passing of time to silence the activist, it didn't work. Monuments to Odeh were erected from Santa Ana to Palestine, and a new generation of Arab-American activists have embraced Odeh as their movement's first martyr.

"I want people to know what my father stood for," says Helena Odeh, one of Alex and Norma's three daughters and the only one old enough to have any memories of her father, including of that terrible day. "He wouldn't rest until there was peace between Arabs and Jews, but [he] passed away before that could happen."

Norma Odeh (middle) with daughters Samya and Helena
Norma Odeh (middle) with daughters Samya and Helena
Brian Feinzimer/OC Weekly
The unknown: Is the sea we fear to swim in
—Alex Odeh

The sun beat down on Alex Odeh's friends, family and colleagues gathered outside the Santa Ana Main Public Library on April 17 of this year, two weeks after what would have been his 71st birthday. They were there to rededicate a statue of Odeh. In 1994, Algerian-American sculptor Khalil Bendib chiseled the monument with Odeh dressed in robes, sitting with a book in one hand and a dove perched on the other—a man of peace. The elements had left the statue chipped and rusted over time, but fundraising by the ADC's Orange County chapter (ADC-OC) returned it to a majestic bronze.

ADC-OC president Lana Kreidie emceed the event from the lawn of the library. Representatives from local civil-rights groups sat under a canopy next to a podium from which speakers, including Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, shared stories about Odeh.

"When Alex was taken in Santa Ana, we lost a fighter," Sanchez said, passionately. She promised to give a floor speech at the House of Representatives the following week, pledging to persist in the search for his killers. "When one person's civil rights are taken away, everybody's rights are taken away; that is the type of fighter Alex was."

Helena followed. "My family will continue to pursue justice for his murder," she said to a crowd of 75 people. "We have been lifted up by our community's efforts to keep his memory alive."

The noontime event continued without a snag. It couldn't have been more different than the original unveiling, also timed near his April birthday. The late radio legend Casey Kasem, who helped raise $25,000 for the statue, attended, along with Odeh's family. Speaker after speaker regaled the crowd with memories of Odeh, until the ceremony's end. Then Irv Rubin, West Coast coordinator for the Jewish Defense League (JDL), screamed from across the street, "Alex Odeh deserved to die!" It was an apt follow-up to what he told the press after Odeh's assassination: "I have no tears for Mr. Odeh. He got exactly what he deserved."

FBI agents guarded the family, and SWAT snipers readied for whatever might happen next. Security whisked the family away after the unveiling ceremony. "The day was a big honor for us, but the JDL people across the street yelling, screaming and chanting bad stuff about my late husband was very devastating," Norma remembers. "Despite all that, my husband still came out on top by being honored, no matter what."

Attacks on the Odeh statue didn't end there. Vandals poured red paint on it on the 11th anniversary of his assassination, repeating the smear months later, adding crudely painted slashes on the neck and wrist. The FBI classified the second act as a hate crime; as with the bombing, no arrests were made.

Odeh never sought to be a lightning rod in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Born in the village of Jifna, Palestine, in 1944, Alexander Michel Odeh grew up in a large Roman Catholic family. After high school, he studied engineering at Cairo University in Egypt, but he couldn't return home when the Six-Day War ended in 1967. Israeli authorities stopped him, saying he needed to be sponsored by family there to return. "He didn't like that at all," Norma says. "He wanted to let people know how wrong that was for him to be born in Palestine, even when it was Palestine, and to not be able to go back to his own country."

The experience changed Odeh, inspiring him to get a political-science degree before immigrating to the United States in 1972. Alex didn't return to Jifna until 1975, but while there, he fell in love with his neighbor, Norma. They married with the blessing of Norma's mother, then moved to Orange County.

Odeh waited tables while teaching Arabic and Middle Eastern history at Coastline Community College. He also pursued a master's degree in political science at Cal State Fullerton, for which he went on to become a lecturer after graduation. The Odehs became parents in 1978 upon the birth of Helena; Alex told the newborn he wanted her to become a journalist so she could share the politics of Palestine with the world. "The time that he'd spend home were the most precious ever," Norma says.

Firmly established in Orange County, Alex joined the ADC in 1982, a new organization formed by South Dakota Senator James G. Abourezk to combat Arab stereotypes and biased Middle Eastern reporting in the media. A year later, Odeh became the West Coast regional director, expanding membership levels and building inter-faith unity between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Southern California. He also published Whispers In Exile, a collection of poetic aphorisms in Arabic reflecting on his life away from his beloved Jifna. Leading an underfunded yet emerging group, Alex spent long hours writing op-eds to local newspapers about Arab-Americans, sending out ADC newsletters and speaking with the media about Palestine.

In an era in which footage and photos of ayatollahs and keffiyehs dominated the media, the image of Odeh—a mild-mannered, non-Muslim Arab-American who always wore a suit while defending the Palestinian cause—confounded reporters. And it infuriated his opponents; he received death threats via phone almost daily. Fellow activist James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute (AAI), testified before a congressional hearing in 1986 that he went to the FBI as early as 1982 to warn the bureau about Odeh's safety.

But it was too late.

Alex Odeh's desk at the ADC-OC office
Alex Odeh's desk at the ADC-OC office
Courtesy of the Odeh Family
I get stripped, hungry and thirsty, but I have my own freedom It divides the three sufferings by three to obtain a result of zero —Alex Odeh

The smoke had barely cleared from the hollowed-out ADC office in Santa Ana when nearly everyone pointed at the most likely suspect: the JDL, an organization set up by the controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane to combat anti-Semitism in the United States, but which eventually devolved into assaults, bombings and assassination plots against perceived enemies.

According to a 1988 Village Voice exposé, police investigators soon focused their suspicions on a trio of JDL members: Keith Fuchs, Andy Green and Robert Manning, a former U.S. Army munitions expert. Two years later, the Los Angeles Times reported that grand juries in Brooklyn and Los Angeles had heard evidence linking Green, Fuchs and Manning to subsequent attacks that investigators believed were carried out by the same individuals suspected to be responsible for Odeh's assassination. Other police sources close to the investigation told the Voice that the FBI allegedly tailed Fuchs and Manning as they flew to Los Angeles on Green's credit card the day before the explosion.

A month after the Odeh bombing, FBI spokesman Leon Bonner identified the JDL as "the possible responsible group" for the Santa Ana attack, along with two other attacks on the East Coast that killed one man with purported Nazi ties and injured another. An FBI official said the three bombs had a "signature," suggesting the same group carried them out. In August 1985, Boston police worked to dismantle a pipe bomb planted at that city's ADC office; it exploded and severely injured an officer.

JDL leader Rubin—a large, loud man once described as someone who "has been escorted out of far more Jewish events than he's ever been invited into"—flatly denied his group's involvement in the Odeh attack to news reporters, even as he praised the outcome. "I have no tears over a guy who loved Arafat, who said any Arab who talks peace with Israel is a collaborator, and he said it on your radio show!" Rubin told Middle East In Focus host Diane James on KPFK-LA 90.7 in January 1986, distorting a point that Odeh had made on the program a couple of weeks before his death that Palestinians didn't recognize an Israeli-created organization as representative of them.

Rubin challenged the FBI to make arrests and threatened to sue them for defamation. His bullying tactics worked: By the time of a July 16, 1986, congressional hearing on Odeh's assassination, the FBI had already stepped away from any mention of the JDL. "We believe that Jewish extremist elements were responsible for Odeh's murder," FBI executive assistant director Oliver B. Revell testified then. "I would not want to characterize at this time a particular group as being specifically responsible." He said the FBI had suspects in the case and were treating the investigation as the highest priority. Authorities eventually nabbed Manning in 1991, in a rare extradition to stand trial for a 1980 nonpolitical contract bombing that killed a secretary in Manhattan Beach—but only under the condition Manning not face any charges in any other potential case. A jury convicted Manning in 1993 and sentenced him to life in prison.

"The investigation continues to be active, though it's obviously what I'd call a cold case," says David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI's LA field office. "We currently have a $1 million reward, a very unusual amount for us to attach to any case, for information leading to the arrest of the subjects involved."

The FBI did question Manning about the Odeh bombing, Bowdich says. Fuchs and Green have long been rumored to be living in Kiryat Arba, an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank with a park named after JDL founder Kahane. As part of the investigation, FBI agents traveled to Israel. "This case has received an extraordinary amount of attention from agents over the years," Bowdich says. "Unfortunately, we just haven't found enough to make a prosecutable case at this point."

The JDL's reign of terror ended in 2001, after the FBI arrested Rubin and fellow Los Angeles JDL member Earl Krugel for conspiring to bomb a Culver City mosque and a field office of Lebanese-American congressman Darrell Issa. While awaiting trial, prison authorities say Rubin died in federal prison after he slit his throat with a razor blade and either fell or threw himself over a railing.

Sanchez: Fighting for justice
Sanchez: Fighting for justice
Brian Feinzimer/OC Weekly

Krugel accepted a 20-year plea deal for the crimes, with a provision that he'd help solve the Odeh case. The Jewish Journal reported the government voided the deal at one point for reasons sealed from the public, though sources point to Krugel's lack of cooperation. In 2005, three days after a transfer to a Phoenix prison, a white supremacist bludgeoned Krugel to death.

No developments have surfaced in the Odeh case since that year—but not for a lack of effort by ADC activists and Congresswoman Sanchez. "I remember reading in the newspaper about it at the time," Sanchez says. "Little did I know that, a few years later, I would actually be the representative of the district where it happened."

Sanchez has tried to use the leverage of her office to prod the FBI. After winning re-election in 1998, she approached Detroit Congressman John Conyers Jr. to help her restart the 1986 congressional hearings he chaired on the Odeh case, but doing anything seemed unfeasible with Republicans controlling the House. In November 2013, she went to Conyers again, and the two pushed for a new hearing on the assassination. The move followed a letter sent by Sanchez earlier that summer to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, appealing for a renewed probe.

This came after the passing of Sami Odeh, Alex's brother and a former ADC board member who had hounded the feds for answers for years. As if to shame the government further, the ADC sent out a statement reading, "We regret that Sami Odeh never lived to see justice served, but we are hopeful that Alex's case will be solved in the near future and justice will prevail."

But, still, nothing happened. "This is a social-justice issue," Sanchez says, genuinely frustrated with the responses from the FBI and Department of Justice since Odeh's assassination. "It's been 30 years, why can't they sit me down and show me what's going on?" If Sanchez had a confidential briefing (and she does have top-secret security clearance for classified information), the congresswoman could at least inform the public with confidence that work continues on the case. "But they won't even do that," she says with a sigh.

The congresswoman isn't the only one frustrated. Richard Habib, Odeh's friend and an ADC board member at the time of the bombing, is still passionate about the cause. "It's a day for me that never ended," Habib says. "[The ADC was] really making progress at the time, [with] people starting to listen that there was another point of view than what the mainstream media put out there. In my opinion, the ADC never did recover."

He sat in on a 2013 conference call with the FBI agents. "I asked about Fuchs and Green only to be told they were never interviewed," Habib recalls. He believes the impasse is purely political. "They either botched the case, or they don't want to put a stress on U.S.-Israel relations. What other explanation is there?"

Lana Kreidle: The new face of ADC-OC
Lana Kreidle: The new face of ADC-OC
Brian Feinzimer/OC Weekly

That frustration is fueling a new generation of Arab-Americans to revive the ADC. Lana Kreidie, a 36-year-old Lebanese-American Riverside County public defender, has been ADC-OC's president since January 2014. She got involved after an invitation by the group in 2011 to sit on a civil-rights panel discussion, then moved on to emceeing Odeh's memorial banquet in 2013. "I didn't even know who Alex was—and I'm an Arab-American living in Orange County," Kreidie admits.

Kreidie's focus is on Odeh's legacy, and that includes recruiting his eldest daughter into the organization. "When I first met the Odeh family, I felt like they were guests at the banquet as opposed to being part of the ADC," she says. Kreidie got to know them better and persuaded Helena join the board of directors last year. "She's a powerful woman with the heart and the energy to keep things moving," Kreide says.

"Nobody came to pick me up from school," Helena recalls of the day her father passed. Eventually, she made her way to her Uncle Sami's house. "I still hear my aunt's words just telling me that daddy's not going to be around," she says tearfully.

In addition to refurbishing the statue and bringing Helena on board, the ADC-OC holds an annual banquet in Odeh's memory. Scheduled for Oct. 17 at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Anaheim, the event's theme, "Promoting Peace, Defeating Terrorism," aligns with Alex's life mission. Habib is set to receive the Alex Odeh Advocacy Award. Former Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich is scheduled as the keynote speaker.

ADC hopes to interest young people—many of whom were born after Odeh's fiery death—in the man's story. "Sami is no longer with us, and a lot of Alex's friends who were really active are in retirement age," Kreidie says. "We're going to need the new generation to keep up the legacy and get justice for him."

Courtesy of the Odeh Family
Courtesy of the Odeh Family
Odeh during his Cairo University days
Dove of peace: Is a beautiful kiss Carried by a heart to another heart —Alex Odeh

Norma Odeh always feared her husband's life would end tragically. "Don't worry, God will be there for you," Alex would say when he tried to reassure her. "I'll be honored to die for my country."

A loving father, Alex never got to walk his three daughters down the aisle at their weddings or get to know any of his five grandchildren, two of whom have Alexander as their middle name.

"It's never been fine," Norma says today. "Not even now—it's not fine."

The memorial at Jifna
The memorial at Jifna
Courtesy of the Odeh Family

But knowing her late husband is remembered from the West Bank to Santa Ana gives Norma some solace. On a trip to Jifna in 1999, Norma saw how beloved Alex is there. "When I woke up on Oct. 11 [the anniversary of his death], the city of Ramallah and the village of Jifna had pictures and posters of Alex all over, hanging from wall to wall," she says. "People go out of their way to make sure that they don't forget that day or Alex as a martyr."

Just this past May, Helena spent three weeks in Jifna with her husband. A street there is named after Alex Odeh; there's also a cenotaph on which his image is centered in a large stone crucifix. Village residents remember him warmly as a native son more than anything else and shared stories with Helena. They told her Alex visited Jifna just before his death, going door to door to personally say goodbye to everyone before leaving.

Back in Santa Ana, Odeh's office looks just as it did 30 years ago. Palm trees sway lazily near the sidewalk. A law firm advertises its services through window panes. No marker commemorates the tragedy that happened there.

Two miles away, Odeh's likeness sits in front of the Santa Ana library, looking over Civic Center Drive. Plaques share notes of his life in English and Spanish, along with a line of his poetry inscribed in Arabic: "Lies are like ashes. When the winds of truth blows, they are scattered like ashes and disappear."

Had Alex Odeh never turned the knob that fateful morning, Helena believes, he'd still be fighting for social justice in all its forms.

"Why my father?" she asks. "Just because he wanted peace between Jews and Arabs?"

Alex Odeh's poetry was translated from Arabic by Rida Hamida.

Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2

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