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Terror plot suspect: From homecoming court member to alleged jihadist

November 20, 2012 |  5:16 pm

Ralph Deleon's family lived on a quiet cul-de-sac in Ontario dotted by palms and pepper trees, a calm haven where mothers were taking their babies and toddlers for a stroll Tuesday afternoon.

Neighbors said it was quite a different scene on Friday morning, when agents from the FBI and Homeland Security barged into the family's home with guns drawn. They did not see if anyone was taken into custody.

"There was all this commotion. I didn't know what was going on,'' said Katie Chu, who was visiting her son across the street from the Deleon's house.

DOCUMENT: 4 L.A.-area men arrested in alleged terror plot

Deleon was among four men charged in a complaint unsealed Monday in U.S. District Court in Riverside. Former Pomona resident Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34; Deleon, 23; Upland resident Miguel Alejandro Santana, 21; and Riverside resident Arifeen David Gojali, 21 were all charged with plotting to join Al Qaeda and the Taliban and threatening to commit "violent jihad" against Americans.

Authorities said Kabir allegedly traveled to Afghanistan in July to set up terrorist training with Al Qaeda and Taliban members. He is also accused of converting Deleon and Santana to "radical and violent Islamic doctrine."

A neighbor, who declined to be identified because he "didn't want trouble,'' said Deleon has lived in the house with his parents and a brother and sister for about five years. A weathered basketball hoop stands near the driveway and, in recent years, Deleon was often outside shooting baskets.

The neighbor said he was surprised to see a sticker suddenly appear on the back window of Deleon's Nissan Altima in Arabic: "La Ilaha ill Allah Muhammadur Rosool Allah," which translated means "There is no God, only Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.''

"They removed it two weeks ago. I don't know what happened. They were cleaning the car and sold it,'' said the neighbor.

The neighbor said that, on occasion, groups of men sporting long beards would drop by the house -- but only when Deleon's parents were at work.

The front lawn of the red-tile roofed home was recently cut, and a sign posted at the entry warned all visitors of the home's security system. No one answered the door Tuesday afternoon. The driveway was empty, and shutters drawn closed.

Ulises Vargas, 23, who attended Ontario High School with Deleon, said the two had a college prep class together as seniors and ate lunch with friends almost daily.

Vargas described Deleon as a typical high school student. Deleon was outgoing -- someone who played on the football team, made Homecoming Court, cracked jokes at lunch.

"He was very extroverted. He had a lot of friends," Vargas said. "I wouldn't say popular, but he was up there."

Vargas lost touch with Deleon after graduation but said he was shocked to hear of his arrest. Many of his friends who knew Deleon are surprised, he said, and angry — several former Ontario High classmates served in the military, Vargas said, "and yet he's here doing stuff like that on the side."

"It's surreal because it's somebody that you knew," Vargas said. "It's a scary thought because now you know you are associated with somebody who would do stuff like that.... You don't really know anybody at all."

It's unclear what prompted Deleon to convert to Islam. At a news conference Tuesday, David Bowdich, special agent in charge of counter-terrorism for the FBI in Los Angeles, said each suspect had "many, many factors" in their lives that led to their radicalization.

According to the criminal complaint, a confidential informant for the FBI asked Deleon if he was using this plan as an escape from problems at home. Deleon said no.

"Deleon said he was comfortable before he became a Muslim and that his temporary pleasures would lead to hell fire," the complaint said.

Deleon's next door neighbor, 15-year-old Martin Garcia, said he was shocked to hear of the arrest. The pair often played basketball together and Garcia considered Deleon passionate about his new religion -- but not dangerous or anti-American.

“He’s actually a really nice guy. He’d offer to take me out to dinner when we played basketball together,” Garcia said. “Then he became Muslim. He would try to influence me to become Muslim, tell me all these nice stories and it sounded pretty cool.”

Deleon told Garcia "he was tired of all that life."

"I know he was just a regular teenager, partying and all that before," Garcia said.


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 -- Phil Willon in Ontario and Kate Mather in Los Angeles