On September 14, Wahed Moharam walked into the Richard Bolling Federal Building in downtown Kansas City to ask why he was on the U.S. government's terrorist watch list. He says he isn't a threat to anybody. In fact, Moharam — once known to Kansas Citians as "Helmet Man" and the owner of As Seen on TV stores — has a history of helping the government fight terrorism.
On February 26, 1993, the parking garage beneath the World Trade Center turned into a 100-foot crater. The bomb blast's concussion knocked out several floors, killed six people and wounded more than 1,000. A few hours after the explosion, at a Sheraton Hotel in Woodbridge, New Jersey, a limousine-company employee showed up at work and began to pray frantically. "An accident happened," Mahmud Abouhalima told his boss — Moharam.
"Oh, my God," Moharam said. "Anybody get hurt?"
"Yes," Abouhalima said. And he was one of the men who had helped do it.
Moharam, a former Egyptian soldier once also aligned with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, would become one of the U.S. government's star witnesses against Abouhalima. He also would also testify against Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Sunni fundamentalist leader known as the Blind Sheikh. Moharam had been a U.S. citizen since 1981 but now had to enter witness protection, giving up his name and the life he had known in order to help the government.
Nineteen years later, in Kansas City, Moharam found himself on the other end of the government's fight against extremism. In what was later called a misunderstanding, officials at the federal building responded to Moharam's query by evacuating the area and summoning the Kansas City Police Department's bomb squad to search his car. Initial news reports suggested that he had identified himself as a terrorist and had threatened to detonate an explosive device. He hadn't.
A little less than a week later, Moharam, 58, walks into a Blue Springs Panera wearing a crisp, custom-made Derrick Thomas jersey, the football player's name spelled in gold stitches across the front. The naturally entertaining and persuasive communicator teases the young women behind the register. "You're beautiful today, each of you beautiful," he says theatrically as he places his order. He gives his name as Mike.
"Mike today," he says. Despite his impossible-to-miss display at the counter, despite a grin you can see from across the dining room, he says he doesn't want to draw attention to himself. He has shaved off the goatee he had when he appeared on the news the previous week.
The disguise isn't perfect. "Wahed!" a woman calls out to him. She approaches, gives him a hug, asks: "How are you?" Her name is Martha Kelso, and she was his boss when they worked together at a health-care firm. "I heard about what happened," she whispers. "Are you OK? Is there anything I can do for you?"
On September 14, a small wave of bomb threats rippled across the nation, following the release of the anti-Islamic YouTube video that was sparking worldwide protest. What turned out to be false reports spooked college students on campuses in Texas, Ohio and North Dakota. In Kansas City, the fear had a name and a face: Moharam's. His name and a photo made it to the press not long after the Bolling evacuation.
Moharam murmurs back to Kelso that after the threat was over, a woman recognized him from the news and told him, "You're a fucking terrorist."
"It breaks my heart," he says. He begins to cry, catching a shred of napkin in his glasses when he wipes away the tears dripping down his face.
"Oh, my God, Wahed," Kelso says. "Can I hug you again?" She does before he can reply.
The two say goodbye, and Moharam says he needs to go, too. He has left his phone at home, and his wife has been calling all the time to check on him. "She's worried somebody may try to hurt me," he says.
They're used to this. It's just the latest pain in 19 years of secrecy and uncertainty. He says he desperately loves this country. Certainly he has suffered for it.
When Moharam tells his story, he tells it as a blur of misbehaving FBI handlers, indifferent U.S. Marshals Service bureaucrats, exes who blew his cover, and an endless string of jobs both good and odd.
Moharam had to give up his limo company when he vanished into witness protection. By his count, he has lived in 17 or 18 cities since 1993. He has lost count of the jobs. There was a stint as a car detailer and washer. He was a Little Caesar's manager and regional manager. He has been a nurse's aide.
He got to Kansas City, in 1997, and was handed a peculiar new identity. "They give me 'Edgar Sanchez,' and I don't speak one Mexican word," Moharam says. "And when I speak to anyone ... they say, 'What! You don't have the Mexican accent.' "
He didn't exactly keep a low profile. He appeared in a Kansas City Star story after opening an As Seen on TV store in Bannister Mall. And soon, he was known as the legendary Chiefs superfan "Helmet Man."
His cover finally melted for good in 2002, when an Independence Examiner article delved into his life and an ex-wife (Moharam's current wife is his third) set up the website whoismyhusband.com. "Is he a foreign terrorist whom MY government has protected?" Shannon Sanchez wrote on the site. "That is a question I long to have the answer for." Chronicling a tumultuous personal relationship, she also accused him of fudging facts and seeking attention. (Copyrighted under Who Is My Husband Enterprises, the site is now defunct.)
The Chiefs took notice. The team's management wanted to move his season tickets, for the safety of the fans around him. He refused, believing that racism had motivated the request. The Chiefs voided his tickets. Moharam took the team to court.
He showed up for the hearing in costume, but he didn't get his tickets back. He was in debt. He converted to Christianity. In a 2003 feature that appeared in The Kansas City Star, in which Moharam was still facing problems with law enforcement and his exes, some of his associates said Moharam sometimes had an edgier side to his sunniness.
With a sly smile, he admits that there has been the occasional bout of "temper," as when, he says, a police chief gave him a hard time. And his history shows that he hasn't been one to back down from trouble.
"A lot of his history sounds so far-fetched, like it should be a movie," Kelso says. She's now a chief nurse for Mobile Wound Solutions in Independence, and at a previous job, she employed Moharam as a nurse's aide for another service in 2008. "But it's the truth. He's very open about it, very transparent, so people don't think he's a terrorist or has these ties. He doesn't have anything to hide."
She says Moharam passed an extensive series of background investigations, including checks for abuse or neglect. "If any of those come up at all, you don't work in long-term care," she says. "He was genuinely a joy to work with and brought grace and love into his work." Sometimes, she adds, he got down on his knees and prayed with the dying. (When Moharam goes to pray at the International House of Prayer, he says he always recites Isaiah 19:23, in which a highway unites Egypt with Assyria and the people of the Middle East pray together in peace.)
Moharam, who now lives in Grain Valley, isn't in witness protection anymore, but the government still keeps an eye on him. This month, that was the problem — a problem he has had everywhere he has traveled, and with seemingly every law enforcement agent he has mentioned meeting.
The day before Moharam's visit to the federal building, a routine traffic stop (he was pulled over for speeding) turned into a five-police-car nightmare. The officer who ran Moharam driver's license saw that the speeder was on a terror watch list and called for backup.
This wasn't news to Moharam. For two decades, he has been given the once-, twice-, thrice-over, everywhere he goes. "I have a problem with Oak Grove cop, I have problem with Grain Valley cop, I have a problem with Independence cop, I have a problem with Blue Springs cop," he says. "I've been treated like this for 19 years."
But the FBI isn't allowed to confirm who is on a terror watch list, which means there's no easy way for Moharam to deny it, either. He went to Bolling hoping to hear why his name was still flagged and what he had to do to clean it up. He didn't expect the visit to end with a bomb robot wheeling up to his car in a show for news choppers.
Sitting in his living room, he hears his phone ring. It's his wife, Debra Hurlburt, checking on him, just as he said she would.
"Hi, sweetheart," he says. The phone's volume is turned up — Moharam's hearing is bad — and her half of the conversation spills into the room. "Honey, you aren't telling him things you shouldn't be telling him, are you?" she asks him, referring to the reporter in their home. "No, I just tell him the basic things," Moharam replies. He puts her on speaker phone.
"The FBI needs to make it right," Hurlburt says. "They need to make a public announcement, a public apology. They need to do more than that. They screwed up your reputation. There are all kinds of people out there who would try to believe that rather than the truth. Everybody's calling us and wondering, 'Aren't you a little scared? Aren't you a little afraid?' "
After Moharam's latest misadventure, reporters staked out his house and asked his neighbors whether they worried that their neighbor was a terrorist. The "propaganda," as Moharam calls it, has crippled his already struggling cleaning business, Xtreme Clean, since the bomb scare. He says he owes $54,000 in back child support, and he demonstrates the depths of his troubles by pulling out two payroll checks to himself that would bounce if he tried to cash them.
He says he just wants the harassment to end and to have his name back — to be known as the Moharam his friends know.
"Ask anybody," he says. "Print in the paper, say, 'If anybody have a bad thing to say about Wahed, call this number.' I guarantee you, nobody will call." He wipes away another tear, then smiles. "Well, except my exes. But that's why the world calls them exes."