From 2003: Witness against terrorists hid in plain sight as a Chiefs fan

09/14/2012 5:50 PM

05/16/2014 7:42 PM

Editor's note: This story originally was publishedc on Nov. 23, 2003.

Ed is a Chiefs fan. You may know him as Helmet Man, the guy with the painted face and banging drum. At least he was Helmet Man until the team told him he couldn't be anymore. The Chiefs had learned his secret.

Ed is a lot of things: a born-again Christian, a hot dog vendor, a father, a man on probation for unlawful use of a firearm, an NFL diehard.

Here is what Ed isn't.

For starters, his name isn't really Ed. The U.S. Marshals Service gave him that name after he testified for the government in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial. His real name is Wahed Moharam, and he was in the federal witness protection program for almost 10 years.

Moharam's testimony helped send two terrorists to prison. He says he did it because he loves America. An ex-wife of Moharam hints he was somehow involved, an assertion Moharam denies. Today he lives an unassuming life in the Kansas City area, the last stop on his witness protection tour of America.

Moharam has paid a high price for helping the government. He left behind a daughter. He lost a limousine business and had to leave his home in New Jersey. He also lost himself, becoming a man with no past, no allegiances, no ties. That was where Helmet Man was born - in his search for an identity.

The Marshals Service has declined to comment about Moharam, citing witness protection policy. However, a Justice Department source confirmed his story. Perhaps the most amazing part of his saga is that it is true.

"I'm not nobody, " Moharam says as he sits in an IHOP restaurant waiting for service. "I am somebody. I'm a survivor."

Yes, this man has been through maddening chaos and turmoil. Moharam looks up from his coffee and Marlboro mediums. His story begins 50 years ago in Egypt, he says, taking a drag and blowing smoke across the table.

Wahed Moharam says he first met tragedy when his little brother drowned during a carefree day of swimming in their hometown of Cairo. It was 1966. Wahed was 12 years old. He lost his sibling and his family in the same day.

"My father accused me of killing my brother, " he says. "He started to treat me bad and said, `I wish you were the one who died.'"

When he was old enough, Moharam left home and joined the Egyptian army. His military background was confirmed by the Justice Department source, who requested anonymity. Moharam fought against the Israelis in 1973, and, when his time in the army was done, he left to try a new life in Italy.

He attended university and worked as the Middle East representative for a shoe company. He lived in Rome and learned to speak fluent Italian. Still, something was missing. He was restless.

In 1978, he came to the United States to visit a friend. He never left, becoming an American citizen several years later. He began attending a fundamentalist mosque in New Jersey, one closely affiliated with the Islamic fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Later, the mosque would be led by the blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. Allegedly involved in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Abdel-Rahman is considered by Osama bin Laden and other extremists around the world to be the spiritual leader of the jihad against the United States.

Moharam owned a variety of businesses, including a carpet store. During the 1991 gulf war, that business failed. He thought anti-Arab feelings were to blame, and he pointed a finger squarely at Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"I was so mad with Saddam Hussein, " Moharam says. "So one day I called the FBI and said, `I will volunteer to go to Iraq, find him and kill him myself.' They said, `Thank you very much. We can't do that, ' and hung up the phone. Six months later, they got in touch with me."

According to court transcripts from the trial in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the FBI wanted Moharam to tape some of Abdel-Rahman's conversations. The federal government was worried about the sheik becoming involved in domestic terrorism. Moharam says he complied. He did some taping, but that was his only involvement with the FBI, at least until the bomb went off.

In the middle of all this intrigue, Moharam said, he had a falling out with the sheik over the mosque's growing anti-American rhetoric.

It was 1992, and Moharam owned a livery business. He parked his limousine outside his house in the Woodbridge Garden subdivision in Woodbridge, N.J. A man approached and introduced himself. The man, Mahmud Abouhalima, was looking for work as a driver. Moharam's life was about to change forever.

According to court documents, in late January 1993, Abouhalima asked Moharam whether he could borrow a van owned by the limousine service. He asked three or four times, but Moharam refused. Moharam said he tried to procure Abouhalima a van, but the company he often did business with did not have any available.

Then, on Feb. 26, 1993, a Ryder van exploded beneath the World Trade Center. Six persons were killed, a precursor to the unimaginable terror to come. Late that afternoon, Abouhalima came to Moharam's office in the Sheraton Hotel. Abouhalima looked nervous.

"His face was so scared, " Moharam says. "No blood in his face. I asked him what happened."

"An accident happened, " Abouhalima replied, according to court documents.

"Oh, my God, " Moharam replied. "Anybody get hurt?"

"Yes."

Moharam got Abouhalima a glass of water. He was shocked to see Abouhalima kneeling in prayer.

"What kind of accident?" Moharam asked again.

"I can't tell you, " Abouhalima said, leaving the office.

When Moharam turned on his television and saw the carnage, he knew what had happened. Moharam says he contacted the FBI to tell them he had information. Agents came to interview him the same day. By this time, Abouhalima had fled the country. His brother, Mohammed, also worked for Moharam and told his boss that Abouhalima had gone to Egypt, where he had been arrested.

Moharam says he told the FBI about the conversation. After some diplomatic wrangling, Abouhalima was extradited to the United States to stand trial.

Moharam's testimony would put his life in danger. So before he took the stand, government officials told Moharam to visit his family in Egypt, because he would never be able to go again. It was like attending his own funeral. For five days, according to court documents, he met with people he had known all his life.

Then it was over. They took him back to the airport. The plane took off from Cairo, leaving behind a mourning family, a way of life and his name. Everything would be different when he landed.

On Jan. 3, 1994, Moharam took the stand. His testimony helped convict Abouhalima, as well as the blind sheik. Mohammed later would be convicted of aiding and abetting his brother's escape. Suddenly, Moharam's old friends were new enemies.

"He is very disliked, " says Joan, an ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter. "The mosque here would love to get their hands on him. He's in danger in Jersey."

Moharam said witness protection took him from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Long Island to Maine to Colorado to Montana, all for brief stops, before he finally settled in Phoenix. All he brought was a small suitcase and his birthday (they let you keep your birthday). When he had gotten into a van with the windows blacked out, everything else was left behind.

The name they gave him in Arizona was Anthony Valenti, which suited him well. His nickname in New Jersey had been Tony, and he spoke Italian like a native.

Almost from the beginning, he learned a hard truth about life in witness protection. Even the government warns prospective clients: This is a last resort.

First, Moharam says, it takes months to get any identification. The government agrees to pay rent for a short time until the witness can get on his feet. Any Hollywood fantasies of big mansions and palm-graced pools are just that. The marshals often look at their protectees as criminals, and many don't feel in a rush to help out, Moharam says.

"Ninety-five percent or better have been involved with crime and have a reason to want to hide someplace, " says former U.S. Attorney Gerald Shur, the longtime director and inventor of witness protection.

Moharam said he received $23 a day, plus money for his basic bills. For six months, he waited on a driver's license and a new Social Security number. Without those, he had no hope of employment.

"You go crazy from waiting and waiting for a miracle, " Moharam says.

Moharam said that he could not call anyone, could not give out his phone number. To send his family a letter, he had to send it to the marshals and they would set up a secure delivery. Moharam says he was too afraid to even open the curtains. All he had was an 800 number; he was supposed to call it if he felt threatened. Fear of being found is, of course, common.

"They want to stop looking over their shoulder, " Shur says. "That's a difficult adjustment period."

Soon enough, some witnesses forget about dying and start to worry about living. The government does not provide any credit history. For men such as Moharam who had been accustomed to owning businesses, it was just too bad.

When Moharam finally found a job as a delivery boy, the restaurant said it could not hire him after all. His license was too new, and the owners could not afford the insurance. Of course, Moharam could not tell them he once owned a fleet of limousines.

"That's the day I realized, they don't really give a damn about me, " he says. "They've already got me to testify. They've already got what they want."

When neighbors mentioned children, Moharam could not mention a little girl in New Jersey. Moharam says that is the worst part of witness protection; thinking hard before every statement, going home at the end of the day and replaying each conversation, searching for signs of an inadvertent betrayal.

The fear is hard, but it is nothing compared with the emptiness. As Moharam realized, people do not understand how important past experiences are to a happy life until they are taken away. Even simple questions - "Are you going anywhere for the holidays?" - are emotional roller coasters.

And the little girl? Yes, Moharam has a daughter in New Jersey. Joan is the mother. To see them, Moharam was flown by the marshals - under a temporary fake ID - to a secure location. Then they flew in the women. It usually was at a nice hotel, and the family could visit for the weekend, accompanied by five marshals. Then it was back to opposite ends of the country for father and child. Although he no longer makes such trips, Moharam still remembers the awful airport goodbyes.

"She climbs on me, crying and screaming, holding my foot, " he says, "and they have to break us apart."

Moharam says he has had visits in Kentucky, in Nashville, Tenn., in North Carolina, in Chicago - indeed, all over the place. Eventually, keeping his secret became too much. He broke a witness security rule and his safety was breached.

They packed him up and moved him to Seattle. There the entire process started over. The waiting. The poverty. The unemployment. In Washington state, he rebuilt his life again. Moharam says he managed to buy his own business, a novelty store. But again his security was breached, and the marshals needed to move him once more. This was his last change; three strikes and you're out of the program.

The government settled on Kansas City. An interesting choice, considering Sheik Abdel-Rahman was imprisoned in Springfield and Mahmud Abouhalima was serving time in Leavenworth. Moharam was quite literally bracketed. No matter. In 1996, after a two-month stop in St. Louis, Wahed moved to Kansas City, determined to start his life once again.

A man named Ed suddenly appeared in the Kansas City area in November 1996. Although his Social Security number was said to have been issued in Massachusetts, there were no prior addresses. It was as if he fell from the sky.

For three years, Moharam tried to build a professional life. He opened three retail stores, held grand openings and did things most folks in witness protection would not dream of. He became a fixture on talk radio through a friend.

"There are very few who wanted publicity, " Shur says of witnesses in the program. "Most don't want that. They just fade away. Now we've had a few do some oddball things."

Once a witness ran for mayor of Austin, Texas. Little, though, compares with what happened in Kansas City. Moharam had been following the Chiefs and wanted to take his fandom to the next level. He found someone to airbrush his head like a helmet, complete with a fake facemask. He would run up and down the aisles of Arrowhead Stadium, banging a drum. He called himself Helmet Man.

He found in this strange character a past, a connection. For the first time in a decade, strangers looked at Moharam and smiled. They wanted to take his picture. They wanted his autograph. In one moment he had gained an entire family to replace the one he had lost - 80,000 strong on eight Sundays a year. He was happier than he ever had been.

"He just made you smile, " says local chiropractor Peter Young, a Red Coater who volunteers for the Chiefs. "He always had a good attitude toward things. He made you laugh."

When players made appearances around town, Moharam would show up. He claims to have known Derrick Thomas, but it is well established with his friends that Moharam is prone to exaggerations.

"Once he's met you once or twice, he talks like you've been best friends for life, " former Chiefs kicker Nick Lowery says of Moharam. "He's a tremendously flamboyant human being."

In late 1999, Moharam was engaged to a woman named Shannon.

The following year they were married. His best man was a U.S. marshal. Then, 10 days after the ceremony, he was kicked out of the witness protection program. Moharam says it was because he told Shannon about his past.

Whatever the reason, his life was about to spin out of control once again.

Most people know Ed as a smiling, happy spotlight-seeker. He is hard not to like, friends say. Others say there is another side to him.

Moharam is "everybody's friend, " says local attorney Les Wight, who represented Moharam on several matters.

"I have to believe there is an angry side of (him), too, " Wight says. "When he gets upset, he must do other things than moan and groan. I don't see that part."

Joan, his former girlfriend and mother of his daughter, is a bit more blunt. She and Shannon, who divorced Moharam in 2001, both have sought restraining orders against him. Shannon could not be reached for comment, although her opinions are well documented in various court transcripts obtained by The Kansas City Star.

"He's a dual person, " Joan says. "He's a good man and a scary man."

Shannon's fears run deeper. Not long after the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, she built a Web site dedicated to telling the world who she thought Ed really was. On the Web site, in great detail, she accused him of being involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 2001 attacks.

Moharam "is not mentally stable, " Shannon said in documents filed during the divorce proceedings. "I believe he's a terrorist."

Moharam says that Joan and Shannon are bitter exes, out to get him. He says that they, aside from the terrorists, are the only people in America who don't like him. He vigorously denies his involvement in either trade center attack.

The anti-Arab sentiment building around the country and his collapsing home life were bad enough. His finances were crumbling as well.

Early in 2001, he had lost two of his three stores and was falling behind in other payments. The past four years had been great, the best he had known in ages, and then it all began to disintegrate. By summer, Moharam's retail operation had collapsed. Searching for a new start, he bought a hot dog cart and began to sell sandwiches on streets around town.

Then Sept. 11 happened. The sight of the burning towers struck a chord with America, and it hit Moharam on several levels. Not only did he feel for the victims, but the images also opened new wounds. He saw the way people looked at him and heard some say he should go back home. Never mind that by then he had been a U.S. citizen for more than 20 years. Never mind that he helped send terrorists to prison.

Go back home? He was home. Didn't they understand?

Moharam got scared and started packing a 9 mm pistol. It was not long, though, before he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, a poor decision that will keep him on probation until next year.

"I've been judged very badly, and I've been wronged, " he says. "I don't think I deserve to be treated like this. I think I deserve to be treated better than the average person for what I did and what I've been through. As a matter of fact, I've been treated worse than anyone else. Do you think it's right? Do I have a choice to be Arab?"

Through all of this, Moharam still had the Chiefs. His love for the team cannot be overstated; he lived and breathed Kansas City football.

As his real family fell apart, he focused even more on being Helmet Man. Wahed and Anthony might be gone. Ed might be hated. But Helmet Man, people still loved him. That love kept him going.

The ex-wife's Web site ended all that. The information was out there, including the fact that Helmet Man has been in witness protection.

When the Chiefs learned about Moharam's past, they contacted federal authorities, who confirmed that Moharam remains in some amount of danger. The Chiefs approached Moharam last year and asked him to stop coming to games as Helmet Man.

"We have information that he's still an at-risk individual, so obviously the safety and security of our people here at the stadium is our No. 1 priority, " says Bob Moore, the team's director of public relations. "We bent over backward on this thing."

The team wanted to move Moharam's season tickets to other sections of Arrowhead Stadium on a rotating basis. This, they thought, would protect Moharam and the people around him. Moharam refused, figuring he would be safer around people who already knew him.

"He wanted to be Helmet Man, " Moore says.

In the end, the Chiefs revoked Moharam's tickets. Moharam called the move racist. This fall, he painted his head again and tried to go to a game. According to one of his attorneys, Garry Helm, the Chiefs had Moharam arrested and charged with trespassing.

"He came to court dressed as Helmet Man, " Helm says. "He almost wanted a trial, and I talked him out of it because I thought they had the right to keep him out of there for security reasons. He didn't understand how he could possibly pose a threat to the other patrons of Arrowhead Stadium."

Moharam tried to keep Helmet Man alive, setting up shop at a hotel near the stadium, but it wasn't the same. With his life falling apart, creditors filing lawsuits right and left, Moharam began to think of some way out. The government was not going to move him again. He was running out of options.

"I was close to ending everything, " he says. "I was close to ending my life because I was losing everything and I was struggling to stand up again."

Just as he hit bottom, something amazing happened to Moharam. He was selling hot dogs at a Christian revival and members of a local church invited him to a service. Moharam says it wasn't long before he gave up the Islamic faith and accepted Jesus as his savior. Soon he was going to church every day.

Of course, Ed can't do anything in moderation. He can't just be saved; he's got to go to church 30 hours a week. He can't just be a fan; he's got to be the most outrageous fan around.

The time in church relaxes him, and he feels comfortable enough around other church members to share his story, the same one he came forward to tell The Kansas City Star. Moharam and his friends like to read from Isaiah and pray for a resolution in the Middle East.

"I feel this is the only place I go where I feel peace, " he says. "I feel it's the only place where nobody judges me. Sometimes I feel sad when I leave the church."

Moharam is very still. Even though he sits by a big plate-glass window in the IHOP restaurant, he doesn't glance outside. He looks you in the eye when he talks. He doesn't think about the people who want to harm him.

"I can't be scared of cowards, " he says. "I don't look behind my back. I look ahead, and every time I face difficulties, it makes me stronger."

Moharam doesn't want everything back he lost, but he would like to be a Chiefs fan again. Especially this year.

"I'm not allowed to go to Arrowhead, " he says. "Why? That's the question I have. What harm did I do to them? What harm did I do to anybody?"

Like most people, Helm first thought Ed's story was just that: a story. An Egyptian limo driver in witness protection for ratting out terrorists suddenly becomes a well-known football fan who sells hot dogs and goes to church seven days a week?

"I thought he was (kidding) me, " the lawyer says. "Then he brought in some books about the World Trade Center. I certified it with the prosecutors across the street. It's a pretty interesting deal."

Sometimes the pieces just don't fit. One day, he tells you one thing. The next day, something slightly different. Friends say the small discrepancies are simply part of Ed's charm. The irony is, the wildest parts of Ed's story are true, while insignificant details such as friendships and business acumen have been exaggerated.

That is what happens when your life is a lie, invented by federal agents. Maybe that is why Moharam cherishes the little things.

Ed opens his wallet, digging out worn business cards with frayed ends. He clutches them like talismans. There is a radio reporter; she admits meeting Ed and that's about it. Several attorneys' cards, remnants of his legal troubles.

As Ed gathers his things at the restaurant, he leans in close. For the first time in about six hours, he is whispering. Ed says he is scared.

"I'm behind so much, " he says softly, taking the last drag of his Marlboro. "I'm behind $50,000. I've had electricity shut off four times in one year. I've had my water shut off. I've been down and down and down, and I'm determined to stand up again."

Then he is gone, leaving behind only a cloud of smoke.

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