ORACLE ILLUSTRATION/MARLOW GUM
A suspended USF student indicted on federal explosives charges remains jailed after a hearing Friday, as a judge continues to review the legal requirements of his release.
A large portion of the U.S. Attorney’s office’s argument against 21-year-old Youssef Megahed’s release focused on new evidence that suggested he had a growing interest in firearms.
The federal prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hoffer, told a judge Megahed tried to purchase firearms – including high-powered rifles and a handgun – and had access to a computer used to view a Web site selling high-caliber bullets.
Hoffer also argued that Megahed is a flight risk, citing an immigration document listing more than $750,000 of Megahed family assets in Egypt, where Youssef and his family are citizens.
Also, Egyptian law would make it virtually impossible to extradite Megahed if he fled there after posting bail.
Friday’s proceedings were a culmination of the legal volleying during the last several weeks between prosecutors and Megahed’s defense over whether Meghahed should be released until his trial, scheduled for Dec. 3. U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday, who presided over Friday’s hearing, said he would release a written decision later this week.
Megahed’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Adam Allen, argued that his client should go free, as the only conditions under which bond could be denied to Megahed are if the crime he is accused of is considered dangerous under the statute or if he poses a flight risk.
Although U.S. Magistrate Judge Judy Jenkins initially granted Megahed a $200,000 bond at a detention hearing Sept. 14, the United States appealed Jenkins’ decision that same day.
Following the appeal was an onslaught of further appeals and motions from both sides of the case, including a stay of release granted Sept. 20, which has kept Megahed in jail thus far and has since been appealed by his attorneys.
Allen asserted that the crime Megahed is accused of doesn’t fit the definition of ‘dangerous,’ which, according to Allen, comprises violent crimes, crimes carrying maximum sentences of life in prison or the death penalty, crimes in which the defendant has two or more prior offenses, or crimes involving controlled substances, a minor or firearms.
“None of those factors would apply in this case,” Allen said.
Hoffer, however, countered that “there isn’t a whole lot on a case like this” and that the section Allen referred to doesn’t specify the grounds for detention. Hoffer also said patterns in Megahed’s behavior gave an “element of dangerousness” to the crime.
The additional background Hoffer gave included new information on Megahed’s recent interest in rifles, dating back to his July 17 purchase of a .22 caliber rifle and subsequent membership to a shooting range.
Megahed and 24-year-old co-defendant Ahmed Mohamed – also a suspended USF student – were arrested in Goose Greek, S.C. Aug. 4. The pair stopped at several
Wal-Mart stores along the way and inquired about weapons and/or made questionable purchases, Hoffer said.
At 4 a.m., the pair stopped at the Wal-Mart in Ocala, where Megahed asked for the prices and serial numbers of a 710 Remington rifle and a 270-caliber Savage Rifle.
At 7 a.m., Megahed and Mohamed stopped at another Wal-Mart in Jacksonville, where Megahed purchased a cleaning kit for another caliber rifle, though he is known to own only a .22 caliber.
Megahed can legally purchase a rifle because he is a permanent resident, Hoffer said. He nevertheless described the incidents leading up to the arrest as “a desire and intent at that point to purchase more firepower.”
An analysis of Megahed’s home computer – shared by Youssef and his family – indicated that a user accessed an online auction site listing for 10 rounds of 50-caliber ammunition on July 29.
“That’s not your average sportsman-type ammunition,” Hoffer said.
Another concern was alleged coded communication between Youssef and his 24-year-old brother, Yahia Megahed,
including a crumpled note found at the Berkeley County jail and a Sept. 14 videotape of Yahia Megahed at the Hillsborough County jail where his brother is being held.
In the tape, which was filmed in the area where visitors communicate with prisoners through cameras and screens, Yahia Megahed turns his head to see if he is alone before raising his eyebrows, grinning, pouting, winking and blinking. When someone approaches, he stops moving and acts as if he is scratching his head.
The rub in the coded-communication theory, according to Allen, was that Youssef Megahed wasn’t on the other side of the screen and couldn’t see his brother.
He described the tape as “perfectly innocent.”
“It’s simply him looking at himself making faces,” Allen said.
After the four-hour hearing, Yahia Megahed commented on the tape and agreed with Allen, saying he thought it was “rather funny and comical” that the prosecution even showed it. He denied knowing sign language.
“I was waiting. It was a boring situation, sitting down for 15 minutes.”
Victoria Bekiempis can be reached at (813) 974-2669 or firstname.lastname@example.org.