SUV was 2nd choice, letter says

Staff WriterMarch 25, 2006 

A letter police found in Mohammed Taheri-Azar's bedroom said he wanted to kill Americans but that driving a rented sport utility vehicle through a crowded campus plaza was not his first choice.

With family members sitting behind the 22-year-old, sometimes crying on one another's shoulders, a police investigator read the typed letter during a hearing Friday in Orange County District Court.

"I would instead use a handgun to murder the citizens and residents of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but the process of receiving a permit for a handgun in this city is highly restricted and out of my reach at present, most likely due to my foreign nationality," university police Investigator Matthew Dodson read.

So, police say, Taheri-Azar drove a silver Jeep Grand Cherokee through the crowded Pit area during lunchtime.

He hit nine people, scraping and bruising most, breaking two arms, a finger and an ankle, and giving one a black eye and some stitches, authorities say. Six people were treated for their injuries, none of them life-threatening, and three declined treatment.

Taheri-Azar never used the two cans of pepper spray and 5-inch folding knife found inside the Jeep after he called 911 to surrender a few minutes later, authorities say.

Taheri-Azar, a 2005 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate with degrees in philosophy and psychology, faces nine charges of attempted first-degree murder and another nine of felonious assault. District Court Judge Joe Buckner decided Friday that the state should pursue lesser assault charges in four of the nine cases as the case makes its way to Superior Court.

Taheri-Azar remains in Raleigh's Central Prison under $5.5 million bail.

If convicted, he could spend his life in prison -- something he has said he is prepared to do for avenging the U.S. government's treatment of Muslims.

"I do not wish to pursue my career as a student any further because I have no desires to amass the impermanent and temporary fame and material wealth that this world has to offer," Taheri-Azar wrote, in the letter police say they found on his bed in his Carrboro apartment.

"However, I made the decision to continue my studies and to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill so that the world will know that Allah's servants are very intelligent," the letter continued.

After the two-hour probable cause hearing, Taheri-Azar's older sister read a statement beseeching the public to withhold its judgment.

Laila Taheri-Azar described her brother as a "kind, gentle and pure soul," and as someone who loved animals, fishing, camping and race cars. He wouldn't permit people to kill "a spider, a fly, a roach" in his presence.

She said Taheri-Azar, a U.S. citizen who was born in Iran, had moved to the United States with his family when he was 2. He speaks no Arabic and only rudimentary Farsi, the native language of most Iranians that is not related to Arabic.

Laila Taheri-Azar said the family condemned her brother's actions and was shocked and saddened by them. She apologized to the victims on behalf of the family.

"We beg of you not to rush to judgment," she said, adding that the family was concerned about her brother's state of mind.

She took no questions.

But to at least one of his victims, Taheri-Azar is a terrorist, "albeit a fairly unsuccessful [one]," he said in an interview. Freshman Alex Slater remembered the man slowly approaching in a silver Jeep Cherokee as the shy senior in his fall-semester English class.

A few months later, on March 3, Slater was the first person police think Taheri-Azar's rented Jeep hit. Slater testified Friday that he had just finished lunch and was heading to a Spanish class when he noticed the SUV rolling right up alongside him.

"I look at the driver, he looks at us, turns the vehicle, ... and I guess he floors it," he said.

The Jeep's tires squealed, Slater said. Slater got swiped by the driver's side mirror, and saw Taheri-Azar's face -- blank, expressionless with a slight smile -- as he accelerated toward pedestrians.

District Attorney Jim Woodall called three more witnesses to the stand to retrace Taheri-Azar's short drive through campus, ending when he turned back onto a road close to where police think he hit his ninth and final victim in a crosswalk.

During almost all of the witness testimony, Taheri-Azar read a paperback copy of the Quran he brought with him.

The FBI has been investigating the incident as a possible terrorist attack. Woodall said Friday he does not think federal officials will press charges.

Staff writer Jessica Rocha can be reached at 932-2008 or jessica.rocha@newsobserver.com.

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