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FBI probes death of driver's license examiner

Woman gave licenses to men being checked for terrorist links

From Kevin Bohn and Deborah Feyerick
CNN Washington

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The death of a Tennessee driver's license examiner accused of helping six illegal immigrants get false drivers' licenses was no accident, the FBI said Friday.

Katherine Smith was found burned to death in her car early Sunday, a day before she was to be arraigned on federal charges she helped five Middle Eastern men and one juvenile get fake driver's licenses earlier this month. The five adults are under investigation for possible ties to the September 11 terrorist attacks, law enforcement officials said.

Smith's car was on fire when it struck a utility pole on a rural highway about 30 miles from Memphis, FBI agent Suzanne Nash said Wednesday. Smith's clothing had been soaked with gasoline, leaving her burned beyond recognition, according to authorities.

The FBI said Smith's death was either a homicide or a suicide.

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All six lived in New York and are illegal immigrants, according to law enforcement officials.

One of the men, Sakhera Hammad, had a visitor's pass for the World Trade Center dated September 5, 2001. He told authorities he and his cousin, Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad, also charged with trying to obtain a fake license, worked on the tower's sprinkler systems -- a claim authorities have not been able to corroborate.

Investigators say they are also intrigued by the fact that another man implicated in the scam, Khaled Odtllah, drove from New York City to Memphis on September 11.

"As a citizen and as an FBI agent, that's very disconcerting to me that these Middle Eastern males are coming down from New York City to Tennessee to get false driver's licenses," said Phil Thomas of the FBI. "We're hoping we would get a handle on what type of traffic this is."

But authorities acknowledge the men could have had nothing to do with the attacks.

The other named suspects in the license scam are Mohammed Fares and Mostafa Said Abou-Shahin. All were arrested on February 7.

Affidavit: Men paid $1,000 for fake licenses

According to an FBI affidavit filed last week, Smith told authorities "that she had accepted Tennessee driver's license applications from Khaled Odtallah, which were already filled out." The applications "were not accompanied by proper documentation, and (Smith) had put them into the system so that individuals on the applications would receive Tennessee driver's licenses."

The affidavit portrays Odtallah as the scheme's ringleader, paying $1,000 per fake license.

Odtllah, Hammad and the four other defendants are alleged to have driven February 5 to a driver's license station in Memphis. They departed about an hour later in two automobiles, accompanied by a juvenile who has not been identified publicly.

Smith had told investigators she issued seven driver's licenses, at Odtallah's request, without proper authentication documents and without following proper procedures. She said she had bought her car from Odtallah.

According to the affidavit, Fares, Abou-Shahin and the juvenile said they were told they could get driver's licenses if they paid $1,000 to Odtallah or Sakhera Hammad. Sakhera and Abdelmuhsen Hammad admitted they had previously received licenses without proper documentation, the affidavit said.




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