On the right side sit Seda’s family and supporters, mostly a motley array of hippyish, middle-aged Ashlanders, but not without their own celebrities: Brandon Mayfield and his wife, Mona, walk in at the last minute. Although Mayfield has never met Seda, he says he came to show his support to a Muslim brother, “another one of those unlucky people who’s probably been falsely accused,” as he later put it.
With his bushy salt-and-pepper moustache and rumpled charcoal suit, Portland defense attorney Larry Matasar is the man who will try to convince Judge John Coffin that Seda is not a flight risk or a threat, and should be released on his own recognizance. The job of U.S. Assistant Attorney Christopher Cardani—who sports a military—style crew cut, designer eyeglasses and an immaculately pressed suit—is to convince him that Seda is a danger to the community and thus should remain behind bars until the full trial.
Talk to any of Seda’s supporters in the courtroom, or to the many others following the case, and they’ll tell you that Seda is the last person any Ashlander would deem a threat to the community. “Not only was he personally opposed to violence,” says Ashland attorney David Berger, “he believed terrorism was inconsistent with Islam.”
The picture Berger and others paint is of a man who started his life at a disadvantage: an Iranian-born teenager who fled persecution in the Shah’s Iran in 1976 to live with one of his brothers in Ashland, where he came of age during the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, when Iranians were vilified and he was one of the only ones in town. In response to the prejudice leveled at him when he was an undergraduate at Ashland-based Southern Oregon State College (now Southern Oregon University), Seda convened a public forum and attempted to explain the actions of his countrymen during the 444-day U.S. embassy takeover, which began in 1979. “He was trying to defuse some of the hatred leveled against Iranian-Americans, and challenge people to overcome their hostility,” says his friend Paul Copeland, who notes that Seda played a similar role on the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, speaking as a Muslim emissary at an antiwar protest. “That’s Pete Seda: always trying to settle a dispute.”
With al Haramain’s resources, Seda tried to take his mediation skills onto the world stage. David Zaslow, the rabbi of Ashland’s Havurah Shir Hadash synagogue, still laughs at the chutzpah of an ill-conceived plan Seda hatched to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the summer of 2002. He’d hoped to hire Jewish truck-drivers and lead a convoy of trucks laden with food from Jerusalem across the border into Palestine, where he’d distribute the goods to refugees. “It’s an anecdote that speaks to his sincerity, and perhaps his naïveté,” says Zaslow.
Seda flew to Jordan and tried to talk his way through the Israeli checkpoint, a Muslim with only a letter of support from Rabbi Zaslow in his pocket. He was turned away after hours of interrogation.
One thing makes the rabbi wonder, though: According to Zaslow, Seda said he would be taking $150,000 with him to buy the food. “I wasn’t surprised by the indictment, because I knew Pete had made at least one attempt to give away $150,000,” says Zaslow. “I was surprised that he got himself into trouble trying to give it to Chechen rebels. That’s not a group you want to be giving money to. If I gave money to Hamas because Hamas is running a hospital, it would be naïve for me to think that I wasn’t giving to a terrorist organization. I can believe Pete may have been naïve and I can believe he made a terrible mistake, but I cannot believe that he was one person in public and another in private.”
Glenn Thatcher, a friend from Coos Bay who considers Seda to be “like a brother,” says Seda’s dyslexia often made him “stupid with money” and believes his friend may have been used unwittingly by al Haramain. “An honest person gets taken advantage of by a crook, because an honest person doesn’t think like a crook,” says Thatcher. “The real world shoots you in the back of the head and leaves you in a ditch. Pete doesn’t want to believe the world’s this way.”