US-born Syrian vindicated in California terrorist threats case
By JOE NELSON | San Bernardino County Sun, Calif. | Published: August 11, 2016
SAN BERNADINO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Ten days after charging a U.S.-born Syrian with five felonies for alleged terrorism-related threats at a Rancho Cucamonga trade school, San Bernardino County prosecutors on Wednesday dismissed the case against 18-year-old Albert Maida.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office spent nearly two months investigating Maida, of Newbury Park, arresting him on June 17 on suspicion of making threats against students at Universal Technical Institute, an automotive trade school that goes by the name “UTI” and provides special privileges for military veterans, two of whom were Maida’s alleged victims.
Maida posted bond on a $50,000 bail the day of his June arrest and was released from custody, giving authorities more time to investigate. On July 28, the District Attorney’s Office filed five felony charges against Maida, two for making criminal threats, two for stalking and one for making a bomb threat.
A warrant was issued for Maida’s arrest. He surrendered to authorities on Aug. 2, when he pleaded not guilty to the charges in Rancho Cucamonga Superior Court during his arraignment. He was booked into the High Desert Detention Center in Adelanto and held in lieu of $750,000 bail.
“At this time, after further investigation and communication with the alleged victims in this case, our office has dismissed the case against Albert Maida,” District Attorney spokesman Christopher Lee said in an e-mail Wednesday. “That said, we will continue to take these types of threats seriously in the interest of public safety.”
The dismissal of the charges came a day before Maida’s scheduled preliminary hearing and one week after Maida’s attorney, Peter Schlueter, told The Sun he believed the charges were fueled by ISIS hysteria and bias against individuals of Middle Eastern descent. He said Maida had been subjected to continual bullying by students at UTI, as reflected in sheriff’s reports filed in the case.
“You worry about knee-jerk reactions, and you expect, especially the District Attorney, to examine a case from an arms-length and with a cool head,” Schlueter said. “And I think if they had done that from the very beginning, they would not have charged Albert, because all the evidence that I looked at was basically derived from their own reports.”
A throng of supporters for Maida, including a couple of Catholic priests, appeared at his Aug. 2 arraignment. Maida’s mother, Najwa Maida, said Albert attends Jesus Sacred Heart Church in North?Hollywood and Saint George Syrian Orthodox Church in San Fernando, where he volunteers with the youth groups and helps out with other duties. Clemis Eugene Kaplan, Archbishop Patriarchal Vicar of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch’s Western Archdiocese, U.S., submitted a character reference letter to the court, dated Aug. 1, on Maida’s behalf, saying Maida was “one of our faithful family members at our St. George church.”
According to police reports filed in support of Maida’s arrest, Maida told military veterans and other students at UTI, that he supported the Islamic terrorist organization ISIS, showed students a picture of an assortment of guns displayed at his home, randomly shouted “Allah hu Akbar!” during class and in the veterans’ lounge at the school, and asked students “what they would do if he had a bomb in his backpack.”
But according to Schlueter, Maida’s family and several students at UTI whose statements are included in sheriff’s reports filed in the case, Maida was merely reacting to constant bullying he received at the school during the 10 months he was a student there studying diesel mechanics. Students often called him “terrorist” or “ISIS,” so Maida would retort by making off-color jokes about ISIS and terrorism.
UTI student Ivan Palomo, according to sheriff’s reports filed in the case, told Deputy Cody Manning that Maida was bullied by other students because he is Syrian, and that Maida would jokingly make comments about ISIS and terrorism, but he did not believe Maida was a threat. Paloma told Manning he felt Maida may have been singled out by other students and things went too far.
Student Eric Arreola also told Manning students would call Maida an “ISIS member,” and that Maida would sometimes go along with it. He said he did not fear Maida, nor did he believe Maida was a threat to other students, according to Manning’s report.
Even one of Maida’s alleged victims, military veteran Michael Maynard II, wrote in a complaint to UTI administrators dated June 9 he wasn’t sure if Maida was serious or not, and that the issue was more about Maida disrespecting veterans and an instructor. The complaint was included in sheriff’s reports.
“Whether Albert Maida is joking or not it is not right to be disrespectful like has [sic] been in any way towards veterans, students, or the instructors,” Maynard wrote.
UTI spokesman Carlos DellaMaddalena said the school is a “military friendly school” that has veteran lounges at all 12 of its campuses nationwide. Veterans are recognized through a “Veterans Club” badge that accompanies their student identification badge.
Regarding Maida’s vindication Wednesday, DellaMaddalena issued the following statement:
“UTI is committed to providing an environment where students feel safe and comfortable and where they can focus on their studies free of distractions and concerns. In this day and age, particularly with what has transpired in our very own community, given the information presented to us we felt we were duty-bound to inform law enforcement and let them use their expertise to get to the bottom of the situation.”
Schlueter said he received a telephone call about 9:30 a.m. from Richard Young, who supervises the District Attorney’s Rancho Cucamonga office. Young informed Schlueter he was dropping the case. Schlueter said he didn’t ask why.
“I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Schlueter said. “I learned a long time ago, if you have a winning hand, don’t say anything.”
More than three hours later, at 12:40 p.m., Schlueter said he received a call from a perplexed Maida wanting to know what was going on.
“I got a frantic call from Albert wondering why he was taken from the jail and deposited at a bus stop in Adelanto. He didn’t know what was going,” Schlueter said. He said Maida did not have a telephone and had to borrow somebody else’s to call him.
“He had no idea why he was all of a sudden let out of jail, taken to the bus stop and let out,” Schlueter said.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman could not immediately say Wednesday what the circumstances were surrounding Maida’s release from custody and whether he was allowed to use a phone at the jail to call his attorney or family, who reside in Ventura County.
Maida could not be reached for comment Wednesday.