Terror plot suspect withdrew; 'Not the same Miguel'
News of Miguel Santana’s terror plot arrest, and accusations that he was a member of a Southern California extremist network, rattled neighbors in the small, working-class Upland neighborhood of duplexes where Santana lived with his parents.
Maria Villa, 44, who lives a few houses down the street, said her son went to Upland High School with Santana and a few years back they used to hang out skateboarding and playing video games. That friendship quickly cooled two weeks ago when her son called Santana to catch up and was lectured about the glory of Islam, Villa said. Santana expressed suspicions that he was being followed.
"Two weeks ago my son had spoken to him, and he said that he was not the same Miguel that he knew. He’s usually a nice, lovely guy, but that time he was not. He was just talking about Allah," Villa said. "He just started to talk about Allah and said, 'You guys shouldn’t be around me. I know people are looking at me.' "
Santana, 21, along with alleged co-conspirators Ralph Deleon, 23, and Arifeen David Gojali, 23, were apprehended Friday by authorities with the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and appeared before a magistrate Monday in federal court in Riverside. A fourth suspect, Pomona resident Sohiel Omar Kabir, was apprehended in Afghanistan.
But in September, weeks before the arrests, Santana told a confidential informant that he thought he was being followed, according to a complaint unsealed in court Monday.
Deleon thought Santana was being watched by the Department of Homeland Security, the complaint said, and suggested the group use code words — "swap meet" for the shooting range where they would train — and "talk vaguely about their plans" to "throw off authorities."
Villa’s brother, Manuel Gomez, said that in recent months Santana has been hanging out with just three or four other guys, all of whom would go to prayers together.
"Maybe he was doing some soul searching and was vulnerable to these guys," said Gomez, 46, a truck driver.
Villa said Santana told her son that he met other followers online.
Santana’s parents are devout Catholics and dote on their young daughter, and are often seen playing with her at the neighborhood pool, she said. In recent years, Santana had grown more quiet and a little more isolated.
“He’s like a loner. He tends to hang out on the corner, sitting down, on his phone or on his bike. I know he lived with his mom and dad and his sister," said Villa, who has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years and works for a local company that makes patches for the military.
According to the complaint, Santana said he was “easily influenced by people” while growing up, “that he wanted to fit into a certain group and to fight for the right reason, and that was why he was around gangs.”
After meeting Kabir, the complaint said, Santana believed Islam was where he would “fit in and actually be able to fight for something that’s right.”
On Friday morning, FBI agents swarmed the neighborhood and burst into Santana’s downstairs home and took Santana into custody, said Mario Campos, 59, who lives across the street.
“They just stormed in there, with rifles and shotguns, banging on the door and saying “Come on out!" said Campos, a plumber, who was walking his dog past a fleet of television news trucks parked in front of the Santana house. “They took him. They took him out quick.’’
Campos said it’s usually a quiet neighborhood: "Nothing like this ever happens around here."
— Phil Willon in Upland and Kate Mather
Photo: Maria Villa, 44, left, said her son went to Upland High School with terror suspect Miguel Santana. Villa's brother, Manuel Gomez, right, said that in recent months Santana had been hanging out with other men and attending prayers. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times