Three African refugees have pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from what police described as a fake bomb found at Phoenix's airport as new details emerged about the case and those who are charged.
Luwiza Daman, Shullu Gorado, and Asa Shani pleaded not guilty in federal court in downtown Phoenix on Friday to a felony charge of causing what appeared to be an explosive device to go through a security checkpoint at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Daman, Gorado and Shani all come from Eritrea, a war-torn country on the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa. Only Gorado speaks some English, while Daman and Shani speak an African dialect and are relying a translator to understand court proceedings.
Authorities say Daman was carrying the suspicious item in her bag on Aug. 5 as she went through security at the airport intending to board a plane to Des Moines, Iowa. Police say Gorado and Shani gave it to her, and described the three as acquaintances.
An FBI investigator and Phoenix police described as a type of paste-like food inside a container, which had a cell phone taped to it. They said the item had the appearance of a bomb and could have been put through airport security to test its vulnerabilities.
But defense attorneys said at a court hearing Friday that the incident was a cultural misunderstanding.
Shani told investigators that he taped the cell phone to the food and had Gorado give it to Daman for her flight to Des Moines. Shani said the item was a gift for his brother in Des Moines who didn't have a cell phone, and said he used tape because the phone was broken.
Prosecutor Joseph Koehler tried to poke holes in that story Friday by calling up FBI agent Benjamin Oesterle to testify in court.
Oesterle said agents looked through Shani's own cellphone, and that it had his brother's cellphone number in it, indicating that Shani knew his brother already had a phone. FBI agents also reported that the cellphone was in good working order, was turned on when it was found, and didn't need tape to hold it together.
Koehler said the inconsistencies "put into great doubt his credibility."
"The fact is, the package passing through a TSA security checkpoint _ if it successfully passes, it reveals a weakness," he said, adding that if it's detected, it reveals the capabilities of airport security, and the response level from authorities. "All of that is valuable information."
He also raised questions about why Gorado would have bought Daman's plane ticket to Iowa.
Mark Berardoni, Gorado's attorney, said Gorado was the best English speaker and agreed to help Daman with the ticket. He said Daman would have agreed to get the package to Shani's brother because that's just the way Eritreans are.
"It's a close-knit community and people help each other ... in a way that we as Americans may not realize really goes on," Berardoni said in court.
He said Gorado had been living in an Ethiopian refugee camp from 2000 to 2007, came to the U.S. in August 2007 and got his permanent legal residency in March 2009.
"There is no motive for a man in a refugee camp," he said.
U.S. Magistrate Michelle Burns set an Oct. 4 trial for the three refugees. If convicted, they would face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Burns ordered Gorado to remain in custody, and will consider whether to order the continued detainment of Shani and Daman at a hearing Thursday.
After the hearing, Daman's attorney, Philip Seplow, said his client has malaria, is a mother of three and only recently arrived in the U.S. from a refugee camp.
"Think about it. She comes from Eritrea, her town is destroyed," Seplow said. "She takes her 18-year-old son to Ethiopia, and she doesn't even know where her mother and other two children are. Why is she going to do something that would jeopardize the place she's seeking asylum?"
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