"The average American," says criminal defense attorney Clifton Harviel, "has no idea of the concept of conspiracy."
Tamela Bracey, a down-on-her-luck single mother, and her cousin Martha Jane Diana, a former employee of the Center City Commission and the Shelby County Assessor's office, learned the hard way. In federal court last week, they pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy, linked to a marriage and engagement scam involving Middle Eastern men entering the United States illegally. Alleged mastermind Rafat Mawlawi, a Syrian-American living in Memphis, has been in prison without bond for nine months because of possible terrorist connections and flight risk.
Bracey and Diana declined to be interviewed. But Harviel, who represents Bracey, says she had "no idea what she was getting into" and got involved because she was strapped for cash after an ex-boyfriend poured sugar into the gas tank of her car three years ago. Mawlawi and Memphis singer Janet Netters Austin initiated the scheme in 2002, according to the indictment. Austin and Mawlawi are set for trial on February 6th.
According to Harviel, Bracey's luck went from bad to worse the day she took $2,000 from Mawlawi to travel with him to Morocco in May 2003. They flew to Casablanca, the fabled port of romance, corruption, and intrigue that is the subject of one of the most popular movies ever made. Harviel says Bracey had no intention of marrying her "fiancé" and figured she could back out by saying she had changed her mind.
She knew almost nothing about Africa, Muslim culture, or foreign languages. After landing in Casablanca, she was driven to a village an hour outside the city. Moroccan culture was a shock. There were no other Americans, and no one spoke English. The women in the village dressed in headscarves and traditional Muslim clothing, ate communally without flatware, and were expected to wait on the men day and night. Bracey felt they were gossiping about her in an unfriendly manner. Her fiancé had a name like an eye chart, which she could not even pronounce: Elablaoui Marouane. They posed together for pictures as "proof" of their engagement, and Bracey's hands, face, and feet were painted with a natural dye called henna in accordance with local custom.
After four days, Bracey had had enough. She demanded to leave and flew back to America. At customs clearance in Detroit, she was ill at ease and still had henna on her hands. Immigration officials questioned her but did not detain her. But a few months later she was questioned again by the FBI and agreed to cooperate in their investigation of Mawlawi.
In addition to conspiracy and immigration counts, Mawlawi also faces weapons charges in a separate indictment. At detention hearings in April and July, prosecutors and FBI agents produced pictures of Mawlawi shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and linked him to Osama bin Laden via a mutual associate named Enaam Arnaout. Attorneys for Mawlawi have indicated he will change his plea to guilty on the weapons charge in January. Meawhile, Harviel says attorneys for defendants in the marriage-scam indictments have been told they need high-level national security clearance because of sensitive information that might be disclosed in the process of discovery.
An FBI agent has testified that the FBI learned about the scam from an inmate at the Shelby County Penal Farm named Andre Dotson, who said Mawlawi tried to recruit him. Mawlawi visited the prison twice in 2002 and 2003 to assist Chaplain Dawud Beyah in conducting Muslim services. Andrew Taber, director of Shelby County Division of Corrections, said there are about 200 Muslim inmates.
"According to Beyah, he was present on both occasions and at no time did he witness Mr. Mawlawi being unethical or unprofessional in any way," Taber said.
He said Dotson is "as close to a career criminal as we have."
Bracey and Diana will be sentenced March 23rd. They face up to five years in prison plus fines and will have to testify if Mawlawi and other defendants go to trial.