SANTA ANA – Helena Odeh remembers going with her father Alex Odeh, then the West Coast regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, to his second-floor office on 17th Street in Santa Ana in the 1980s.
“His work was his life,” she said. “That’s what he stood for. He wanted peace.”
On Oct. 11, 1985, the morning after he appeared on local and national television praising Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat as “a man of peace,” Alex Odeh went to his office. As he unlocked and opened the door, a pipe bomb detonated, blowing off his legs.
“The ceiling has dropped. All the windows on the second floor are blown out. There is glass clear across the street. It looked like a tornado hit it,” Greg Lee, an attorney who witnessed the explosion from a building nearby, said in an Orange County Register article published the next day.
Alex Odeh died in surgery 2 1/2 hours after the blast at the age of 41.
Three decades later, one of Orange County’s earliest acts of terrorism remains unsolved. A reward of up to $1 million the FBI announced in 1996 for information leading to any arrests or convictions remains, and Odeh’s family and Anti-Discrimination Committee members are using the anniversary this year to fuel a national movement seeking answers.
“I believe it is the oldest open counter-terrorism investigation we have,” said David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office overseeing seven counties. “I’m not aware of anything on this scale that has occurred in Orange County since.”
Helena Odeh was 7 years old when her father died; her sisters, Samya and Susan, were 5 and 1, respectively. Sunday, the 30th anniversary of Alex Odeh’s assassination, his widow, Norma, and Samya will visit his grave – but Helena Odeh will stay home.
“I haven’t gone in years, just because it’s too painful for me,” Helena Odeh, 37, said. “I am the only one of my sisters who remembers my father. His touch, his voice – I’m the only one who remembers that, and when I see his face on the gravestone, it just kills me. It tears me up inside.”
Most of the family still lives in Orange County but didn’t want their city of residence published because of safety concerns.
Alex Odeh was born in the Palestinian village of Jifna and studied engineering at Cairo University in Egypt, but was unable to return home after the Six-Day War. The experience prompted him to pursue a political science degree instead.
He moved to the U.S. in 1972, and when he returned to Jifna three years later, he met and married Norma. They settled in Orange, and he served as a part-time professor of Middle East history and Arabic at Cal State Fullerton and Coastline Community College, while making peaceful relations in the Middle East his life goal.
That goal remains elusive today, and so too does closure in the Odeh case.
Thirty years with no information from the FBI except, “It’s an ongoing investigation,” is a long time for the Odeh family and the Arab-American community, said Lana Kreidie, president of the committee’s Orange County chapter and a criminal defense attorney.
Investigators within a few years of the attack named three Jewish Defense League members as persons of interest, “and then you have crickets,” she said. One of those men, Robert Manning, was later sentenced to prison for the 1980 bombing of a computer company in Manhattan Beach.
“We want transparency from the FBI, we want to know what they’ve done to follow up on these leads,” said Kreidie, who encouraged Helena Odeh to join the local chapter’s board. “We’re not getting any closure.”
Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director for the committee’s national office in Washington, D.C., added: “Sadly, many feel that the life of a Palestinian American is not as valuable as another life. That’s the perception that’s being given, that an Arab life is not worth investigating and not worth taking action on.”
But Bowdich said the FBI has not backed off on its efforts.
“Absolutely it’s a cold case – it’s 30 years old – but that doesn’t mean it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere in a box,” he said on Friday. “As an organization we are very committed to hopefully bringing this case to a solution, apprehending those individuals that were involved.”
Bowdich acknowledged that a working theory is a Jewish extremist group targeted Alex Odeh and “we’re continuing down that path; we’re just looking for that critical link to solve the case.”
In 1997, vandals splattered red paint on a statue honoring Odeh outside of Santa Ana Public Library. That case, considered a hate crime, remains unsolved, too.
The FBI continues to reexamine evidence on the explosion and is looking at “new techniques” to determine if any more evidence can be generated to solve the case, Bowdich said.
“And the reward is out there,” he said. “That has not been rescinded at all.”
Meanwhile, ADC committee members continue pushing for justice for Alex Odeh with new efforts.
Out of Washington, D.C., the national committee and a diverse group of 25 civil and human rights organizations including the NAACP on Friday sent letters urging the U.S. Department of Justice and Congress to rededicate resources to the investigation. On the anniversary Sunday at 9 a.m. they are fronting a #Justice4AlexOdeh Twitter storm.
The committee’s Orange County chapter is holding its annual memorial banquet, themed “Promoting Peace, Defeating Terrorism” this year, on Saturday at the Sheraton Park Hotel at the Anaheim Resort. Guests will participate in a letter-writing drive to defense leaders.
Knowing the FBI continues to pursue her father’s case is important to Helena Odeh.
“It’s been 30 years, and if I have to wait another 30 years to get a little answer, that’s fine,” she said. “I just want some kind of answer. I just want to know why, what was the reason?”