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Saturday, September 29, 2001
Charlotte County man's case heard in Roanoke federal court
Magistrate rules in favor of detaining alleged leader of Islamic extremist group

A special agent linked Vicente Rafael Pierre to a "violent black Muslim group."


   Federal authorities prevailed Friday in court as they sought the detention of a Charlotte County man they claim is a leader of an Islamic extremist group.

    During the charged hearing in federal court in Roanoke, Thomas Gallagher, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, linked Vincente Rafael Pierre to Al-Fuqra, a group he described as a "violent black Muslim group that acts out jihads." Gallagher said the group was responsible for 17 bombings and 12 murders across the nation.

    Despite the connection federal authorities made, the charges against Pierre are connected to Pierre's allegedly having his wife, Traci Elaine Upshur, buy two semiautomatic pistols for him even though he is a convicted felon. It is against the law for persons convicted of felonies to possess firearms.

    "They're bringing in a whole lot of things that shouldn't be in this case," Roanoke attorney Thomas Wray said after the hearing. Wray was court-appointed to represent Pierre.

    Upshur was also indicted and has been released on bond to the care of a family friend in Roanoke.

    Pierre testified that Al-Fuqra as an organized entity did not exist, that it was a "phantom organization."

    When Pierre was indicted last week, federal authorities were quick to distance the case from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. However, Gallagher also testified that although the indictment had been in the works, the recent attacks sped up the process.

    As law enforcement officials across the nation grapple with the balance between personal freedoms and public safety in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pierre case provides a local window on how federal law enforcement is dealing with a case that may confront that conflict.

    Gallagher testified that Pierre was a leader of the "Muslims of America." He described the community where Pierre lives in Red House, southeast of Lynchburg, as a gated compound with an armed guard. Pierre, 44, and other members of the group were making a deal to buy machine guns from someone they did not know was an informant, Gallagher said.

    Gallagher also linked Pierre to the larger picture of Al-Fuqra. He described how Pierre was indicted in 1992 along with other members of the Pakistani -based group as part of a racketeering indictment in Colorado that included allegations of fraud, arson and murder aimed at Jews, Hindus and moderate Muslims. Pierre was accused of only fraud, however, and he pleaded guilty to that in 1993.

    Gallagher also testified that Pierre's handwriting was found on human-shaped targets with bullet holes and the words "FBI agent" and "Zionist Pig." The targets were found in a Colorado storage locker along with 10 handguns, and documents outlining plans to kill a Muslim cleric in Tuscon, Ariz., which took place four months later in 1990, Gallagher said. Members were also linked to the 1984 firebombing of a Hare Krishna temple in Denver.

    Throughout the hearing, Pierre shook his head, rolled his eyes, offered occasional commentary and challenged prosecutor Tom Bondurant.

    After Wray called Pierre to testify and he talked about his wife and seven children, Bondurant pressed Pierre on cross-examination about his link to Al-Fuqra.

    Pierre's gaze locked on Bondurant, and he corrected the prosecutor on his pronunciation of the group's name.

    "You have to have an understanding of the language," Pierre added.

    After Bondurant cut Pierre off as he tried to expand on his answer about Al-Fuqra, Pierre insisted that Wray allow him to retake the stand so that he could "make himself clear."

    Pierre then argued that Al-Fuqra was just a word.

    "It's just a figment of someone's imagination and a misunderstanding of language," Pierre said. He added that Fuqra was Arabic for "impoverished" and asked rhetorically whether most of the Third World should be considered part of Al-Fuqra because they are poor.

    Pierre continued that the second sense of the word means to be poor in that "the spiritual seeker has not love for this mortal world." Many Muslims strive for the second sense, he said, as "a spiritual station to be attained with God."

    Bondurant also pressed Pierre on his associations with other people who were linked with violent acts and Al-Fuqra. Pierre denied most of the associations.

    Gallagher testified that Pierre had been found carrying a box cutter when he was arrested at the Red House post office.

    Pierre, who was not testifying at the time, said loudly, "it's called a utility knife, not a box cutter."

    Bondurant also argued that Pierre had used aliases in the past and pressed him on the fact that he did not have a regular job.

    U.S. Magistrate Judge Glen Conrad said Pierre's alleged link to Al-Fuqra should not be held against him at his detention hearing. He did rule, however, that a convicted felon's acquiring firearms constituted a crime of violence. He further ruled that Pierre did not present proof that he could post bail and returned him to federal custody. That decision could be revisited, Conrad said.

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