Woman Charged Dies Before Court Day
Woman Charged in Driver’s License Scheme Died the Day Before Court Appearance
The Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. Feb. 12

A driver’s license examiner charged in a scheme with five men to sell fraudulent licenses died in a fiery car crash the day before her first court appearance, a crash the prosecutor called “most unusual and suspicious”

As Katherine Smith failed to appear in court Monday, the FBI disclosed that it is investigating whether her five co-defendants have terrorist ties, with Prosecutor Tim DiScenza citing “connections” to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Smith, 49, was killed after the 1992 Acura Legend she was driving ran off the road early Sunday and struck a utility pole on U.S. 72 just north of the Mississippi state line, Highway Patrol Lt. Col. Mark Fagan said Tuesday.

Her car “was immediately engulfed in flames” but authorities don’t know whether the fire started before or after the crash, he said. The body was so badly burned it took authorities until Tuesday to verify Smith’s identity. The cause of death remains under investigation.

At a federal court hearing for two defendants Monday, DiScenza called the crash “most unusual and suspicious.”

FBI agent J. Suzanne Nash said authorities were trying to determine what caused the car to burn. The gas tank did not explode and the car was only slightly dented from the crash, she said.

Smith was one of six people charged last week by federal officials with conspiracy to get Tennessee driver’s licenses under false pretenses.

Also charged were Khaled Odtllah, 31; Sakhera Hammad, 24; and Mohammed Fares, Mostafa Said Abou-Shahin and Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad. Authorities didn’t provide ages for the last three and said they admitted being in the country illegally.

Odtllah came to this country from Jerusalem 13 years ago and has lived in Shelby County for 2 years, his lawyer said.

Sakhera Hammad, from Jordan, is now a U.S. citizen living in New York City, said his father, Peter Hansen, who attended the hearing. Nash said Abou-Shahin told authorities he was from Egypt and is a carpenter. Fares has a Venezuelan passport and speaks Arabic, DiScenza said. The nationality of Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad was not given.

Nash outlined the men’s alleged connections to the terrorist attacks.

She said when Sakhera Hammad was arrested, investigators found a visitor’s pass for the World Trade Center, dated Sept. 5, 2001, in his wallet. He told authorities he was a plumber who worked on the center’s sprinkler system. He said Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad was a cousin who worked with him, Nash said.

Nash said federal authorities learned that Odtllah drove to Memphis from New York City on Sept. 11.

Anthony Helm, attorney for Odtllah, asked Nash, “You certainly don’t have any indication any of these fellows is a terrorist, do you?”

“Not at this time, no sir,” Nash said.

The case broke last week when authorities staked out the driver’s license office where Smith worked on a tip from the FBI in New York that several illegal immigrants from the Middle East were traveling to Memphis to illegally obtain state IDs, Nash said.

Smith, an examiner for nine years, told authorities that Odtllah was a friend who had asked her to help him obtain driver’s licenses six or seven times, Nash said.

U.S. Magistrate Diane Vescovo continued the hearing until Wednesday for Abou-Shanin, Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad and Fares, primarily to arrange for an Arabic interpreter. She ordered Odtllah and Sakhera Hammad held without bond until their trial.

Smith had been released pending trial.