Patrick Vuillaume. Michael Saisa. Jalali. These are a few of the many aliases used by Youssef Hmimssa, a self-proclaimed “scam artist” who is the government’s star witness in the first terror trial to result from federal investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks.
After pleading guilty to several counts of identity fraud and credit card fraud, Hmimssa testified last week against four Arab men being tried in U.S. District Court in Detroit on charges of providing substantial aid to terrorists.
By agreeing to testify against the others, Hmimssa avoided being charged with aiding terrorists. The government’s case hinges in large part on his testimony.
The defense, which spent more than two days cross-examining him, suggested that Hmimssa is a compulsive liar who would say anything to save himself.
Other critical evidence in the case includes a day planner found in the apartment of three of the defendants. The government says it contains sketches of a U.S. air base in Turkey and a military hospital in Jordan. The defense says the day planner belongs to a mentally ill Yemeni man, who thought he was a general. The man killed himself.
Another key witness is James Sanders, a mentally deficient Detroit resident who cannot read or write. He testified that he worked with two of the defendants and that they asked for copies of his birth certificate and Social Security card, which he provided without asking why they wanted them.
In khaki pants and an orange top, Hmimssa, a 32-year-old Moroccan, told the court how he came to the United States and met the defendants, whom he claims are “terrorists.”
Hmimssa said he left Casablanca at age 18 in 1990, bound for Italy. But he never made it there. He said he traveled through several countries, including Romania, where his passport was stolen.
Instead of returning to Morocco to obtain a new one, Hmimssa said he bought a passport on the black market bearing the name Patrick Vuillaume. He continued to live under that alias when he arrived illegally in the United States in 1994. He planned to go to Canada, but wound up in Chicago.
Hmimssa testified that he lived on the city’s south side in an Arab neighborhood for about six months; part of that time he worked at a fast-food restaurant. But he wanted to learn English and moved to the north side for about a year, he said. He drove a cab and took computer classes, still living under the alias Patrick Vuillaume. Except for the false identity, Hmimssa said he lived an ordinary life.
In 1999, he became a Microsoft certified assistant engineer and began working for a computer company installing networks, he testified. But he quit when the company did not pay Hmimssa for two months’ work; he said the firm intentionally hired illegal immigrants so it could cheat them of their wages. Having fallen behind on his bills, he said, he turned to a life of crime.
“After that I became a crook,” said Hmimssa. “I became a scam artist.”
Hmimssa testified that he purchased a credit card decoding device from a “hacker home page” on the Internet. He used the device when he returned to driving a cab. He swiped passenger credit cards through the machine, which stored the data and enabled him to transfer the numbers to his own credit card, he said. Hmimssa said he gave a similar device to a friend who waited tables. His friend used it to steal credit card numbers from restaurant customers. He collected more than 700 credit card numbers, he told the court, and used about 110 of them.
Initially, he used them to buy food and gas, but then he got greedy, he testified. He purchased computer equipment he later sold for a reduced price. He did this for about five months before he was nearly arrested at an Office Max. At the time, Hmimssa was using two aliases, and he mistakenly presented a credit card bearing one name and a driver’s license bearing another. When the clerk called security, Hmimssa fled. About a week later, he said, he visited another Office Max.
“I went to a different store, but they were waiting for me,” he testified. Although store staff surrounded Hmimssa, he escaped. He put his belongings into storage, abandoned his apartment and moved in with a friend. He also purchased a Romanian passport on the black market.
The Secret Service, which had been watching Hmimssa, arrested him in May of 2001. He was released on bond with the condition that he would help authorities in the arrest of an armed criminal. Hmimssa agreed, but then fled, fearing he would be harmed.
“I got scared and freaked out and decided not to do it,” he said.
Hmimssa returned to his storage locker and found a list of stolen names and Social Security numbers that the Secret Service had failed to confiscate. With his computer, he created a false ID bearing the name Michael Saisa. He drove to St. Paul, Minn., where he abandoned his car. He said that he took a bus from there to Detroit, hoping to fade into the large Arab population here.
When he arrived in June 2001, Hmimssa said he went to a Dearborn mosque. He told the Muslim cleric that his name was Jalali and was allowed to stay the night.
The following day, he said, he went to the Arabian Village Restaurant on Dix Avenue, where he met two of the defendants, Karim Koubriti and Ahmed Hannan; he also told them that his name was Jalali.
They invited Hmimssa to stay at their Dearborn apartment and share the rent. He lived with them a month. During that time he said that he met Farouk Ali-Haimoud, an Algerian who is also on trial.
He said that the three men frightened him because they spoke of buying weapons and killing infidels. They tried to recruit him, he testified, and introduced him to Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, also a defendant in the case. Hmimssa said that Elmardoudi shared the others’ beliefs and spoke of attacking Disney World.
Hmimssa testified that he feared for his life and moved to a different apartment. But he stayed in touch with Elmardoudi, claiming that the others had stolen some of his identification and that Elmardoudi helped him get it back.
Elmardoudi later told Hmimssa to move to Iowa, which he did. He said that Elmardoudi supplied him with travel visas, Social Security cards and other documents, which Hmimssa then copied on his computer equipment. Hmimssa said that Elmardoudi wanted fake IDs so he could bring “brothers” to the United States; Hmimssa said he understood brothers to mean other Islamic extremists. Hmimssa said he followed Elmardoudi’s orders because he needed a passport from him. Although he said he was afraid of Elmardoudi, he gave him a key to his apartment.
While looking for another suspect in connection with the terrorist attacks, the FBI arrested Koubriti, Hannan and Ali-Haimoud at their Detroit apartment on Sept. 17, 2001, according to court records. They found identification in the apartment bearing the name Michael Saisa, which belonged to Hmimssa; he was arrested Sept. 28, 2001. Elmardoudi was arrested about a year later in North Carolina with more than $80,000 in cash and scores of IDs. Unlike Hmimssa, the four defendants have been in the country legally.
Hmimssa testified that he met with the FBI at least three times in six months before he accused the other defendants of being terrorists. He said he waited to tell the FBI this because he thought he might be charged with aiding terrorists since he made a false ID for Elmardoudi.
Hmimssa also had outstanding credit card and document fraud charges against him in Illinois and Iowa. But his plea agreement consolidated those charges into one case in Detroit. This was a coup for Hmimssa, who avoided serving consecutive terms in each of the three jurisdictions. Now, he will serve only a single term of 37 to 46 months in prison. Depending on his testimony, the federal prosecutor could recommend that his sentence be reduced, which is subject to the approval of U.S. District Court Judge Gerald E. Rosen, who is presiding over the trial.
It’s hard to know what the judge will do, but Rosen did not look pleased when Hmimssa testified that his current sentence is not severe because stealing credit card numbers “is nothing. It’s just a white-collar crime.”Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org