The unsolved murder of Alex Odeh—a Palestinian-American activist killed in an Oct. 11, 1985, pipe bomb attack at his Santa Ana office—is getting renewed attention in an unlikely setting: Phoenix, Arizona. That’s where Robert Manning sits in a federal prison cell decades after being convicted for the 1980 mail-bomb murder of Patricia Wilkerson, a Manhattan Beach secretary.
Manning was an activist with the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a militant group founded in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane with the rally call of “every Jew a .22” that set off bombs targeting the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the organization for which Odeh worked. Though no one knows exactly who assassinated Odeh, a 1988 Village Voice exposé noted law enforcement quickly focused its attention on three JDL associates: Keith Fuchs, Andy Green and Manning. The latter was collared in Israel for Wilkerson’s murder, then extradited back to the United States, where he was convicted in 1994.
Though maintaining his innocence, Manning asked to serve his punishment in Israel, which the judge at the time refused. But in September 2015, the Department of Justice mysteriously approved his transfer request, only to revoke it two weeks later because of “additional information [that needed] to be reviewed and evaluated before we are authorized to make a decision.”
He sued the United States government in court a year later, shortly after being denied parole in October 2016. And that’s where the Odeh case comes in.
The suit claims the FBI has repeatedly approached Manning to try to obtain information on the Odeh bombing, citing a 2001 letter from now-retired agent Mary Hogan. “As the primary investigator in the Alex Odeh case, I have previously contacted you to solicit your assistance in this investigation,” she wrote to Manning. “In my view, you have nothing to lose in providing any information you have relating to the . . . case and can only help yourself.”
Manning claims to not have any information about the bombing and that he wasn’t a JDL member, though media accounts have pegged him as one and he appears in a photo from JDL leader Irv Rubin’s wedding in the 2016 documentary about the group, Mother With a Gun. “Given the widely known and fundamentally incorrect assumptions about him, Mr. Manning has exercised his right to refrain from communicating with the government about any substantive issues, including matters relating to the Odeh event,” the suit reads.
Yet, a 2015 Weekly cover story (see “Activists and Family Members Keep the Memory of Alex Odeh Alive, 30 Years After His Unsolved Assassination,” Oct. 7, 2015) revealed agents had, indeed, questioned Manning in the Odeh case over the course of their investigation.
Citing pending litigation and an open investigation, the FBI declined to comment for this story. But Odeh’s widow did.
“It’s shocking to even think of letting Manning finish his sentence back home,” says Norma Odeh. The Odeh family has long pinned responsibility on Manning for Alex’s murder. “Is that fair that Alex is gone, but Manning’s still there and thinking about going home? That’s ridiculous.”
Representing Manning is Paul Batista, a well-known New York trial attorney whose legal-thriller novels receive high-profile praise from television personalities such as Nancy Grace. Batista used his prolific writing skills last week to file a challenge to the government’s recent move to dismiss the lawsuit. The DOJ’s attorney countered in May that Manning has no standing to challenge its discretionary authority under the International Transfer of Offenders Act. In addition, the DOJ claims, the New York Southern District Courtroom where Batista filed the lawsuit is an improper venue since Manning was convicted in California and serves his sentence in Arizona.
“This ability to give and take away may have been viable in the France of Louis XVI,” Batista responded. “It is not viable here.” He also challenged the government’s improper-venue argument. “Manning could be required to hopscotch endlessly around the country to file an action in a judicial district where he ‘resides’ or is physically located. The government, in other words, can engage in an endless shell game to evade Mr. Manning’s claim.”
The ADC, which Odeh helped to build as its western regional director, first learned of the Manning lawsuit earlier this year. “They’re trying to distort the fact that he’s a suspect” in the Odeh case, says Abed Ayoub, ADC’s legal and policy director. “We are confident that the FBI will pursue this aggressively and he will face charges.”
The Odeh family wanted to attend Manning’s parole hearing last October, but they weren’t allowed because they had no direct connection to the Wilkerson case. But Patricia’s daughter, Pamela Wilkerson, contacted them and spoke about their case at the hearing. “When I showed up, he realized that there’s someone still around and invested in making sure he stays in prison,” Wilkerson says. While Manning’s suit describes him as confined to a wheelchair and nearly deaf, that’s not who Wilkerson says she saw from less than 3 feet away in a small conference room. “He’s a huge, strapping man who isn’t in a wheelchair,” she says. Manning pushed a walker, she adds, but insists “he isn’t frail in any way whatsoever.”
Regina Tapoohi, Israel’s senior deputy to the State Attorney, and former U.S. Senator Carl Levin have signed letters of support for Manning (who holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship), arguing he deserves proper medical care in Israel, where he can be closer to his children and grandchildren. But Wilkerson, whose mother wasn’t Manning’s intended target, isn’t sympathetic. “In my mother’s case, a terrorist group—the JDL—was willing to accept money to murder somebody who had nothing to do with their cause,” she says.
Batista has high hopes for his client’s return to Israel. “If we prevail on the motion to dismiss, we will move for summary judgment to compel the transfer,” the lawyer told the Weekly.
The prospect worries Wilkerson. “The idea of this being in the hands of a single judge scares me,” she says. “William Ross, the man who paid the fee and asked for the murder, died in prison. Manning needs to do the same—and in a U.S. prison [because that’s the country] where he committed the murder.”
Jewish extremists hail Manning as a hero and rally for his return to Israel on online forums. And the JDL is making a comeback; members violently assaulted a Palestinian-American professor at a Washington, D.C., protest this year.
Meanwhile, the Odeh case grows colder by the day. “It’s going to be 32 years, and nothing has been done,” Norma says. “I keep hoping [that] somehow they [will] bring the people responsible for my husband’s death to justice.”