TOMORROW, AT NOON on August 15, 2007, Pete Seda will be arrested. Minutes after he steps off a Lufthansa Airbus at Portland International Airport, federal agents will surround him. One, clutching an arrest warrant, will verify Seda’s identity and recite the charges pending against him. Another will ratchet handcuffs around his wrists. Then he will be taken to an unmarked federal van and spirited off to jail.
Pete Seda knows this will happen, yet he still wants to come home.
Since a United States District Court judge in Eugene signed that warrant on February 17 two and a half years ago, Seda, a 50-year-old Iranian-born American whose given name is Pirouz Sedaghaty, has been living as a fugitive in Iran and, most recently, Syria.
Although he does not regret the day in 2003 that he left the United States amid a brewing criminal investigation, Seda deeply misses his life in Oregon. He wants to return to Ashland, where he lived for nearly 30 years, and settle into a house and a routine with his young wife, Summer Rife, a 27-year-old Alaskan whom he met while giving a talk about Islam at Rogue Community College and married while he was in exile. He wants to visit with his two sons (from a previous marriage), 20-year-old Joseph and 23-year-old Jonah, both practicing Muslims who are now living on their own in Portland, where they’ve grown into men without him.
Before he fled the country, Seda made a living as an arborist, pruning trees for the city and wealthy Ashlanders. Every so often his clients might look out their windows to see this hale and bearded woodsman silence his chain saw, face Mecca and bow his head in prayer. This overt display of faith charmed many of them. As one of maybe two dozen devout, practicing Muslims in a community primarily composed of Christians and New Age spiritual devotées, Seda was also charmed by Ashland. Its liberal politics and diversity-embracing ethos allowed him to practice his religion openly and without fear.
So when he chartered the Ashland chapter of the nonprofit al Haramain Islamic Foundation in 1997, no one in town questioned it. After all, Seda was a respected, hardworking member of the community, an upright citizen who was often asked to speak from a Muslim point of view at local schools, churches and synagogues and at public events, including a peace rally that was held in the commons at Southern Oregon University on the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And the mission of al Haramain, as stated in the articles of incorporation Seda filed with the state of Oregon and the IRS, was simply to peacefully advance Islam, just as any church might dedicate itself to advancing Christianity. Al Haramain even went one step further, explicitly opposing “terrorism, injustice or subversive activities in any form.” It provided a place for area Muslims to worship. It sent Korans to prison inmates.
What few Ashlanders realized at the time, however, was that Seda’s house of worship, situated on four and a half bucolic acres near the city’s southern border, also had direct ties to the Middle East. And that the chapter’s parent organization, once one of the largest nonprofits in Saudi Arabia, would eventually be fingered by the U.S. Treasury Department as a fundraising apparatus for al Qaeda.
This they would learn well after Seda skipped town. And after federal agents stormed his home and hauled away more than 60 boxes of evidence. And after Justice Department officials issued a 17-page indictment, charging Seda with conspiracy to defraud the United States government, the filing of a false tax return, failure to report “the international transportation of currency or monetary instruments” and helping a Saudi national named Soliman al Buthe launder a $150,000 donation for al Qaeda’s mujahideen, or Muslim holy warriors, fighting in Chechnya.
Now Seda is penniless and tired of running. And so on August 14, 2007, he has boarded a plane in Damascus, Syria, with a one-way ticket to Portland, via Frankfurt, where he’ll spend his last day as a (relatively) free man.