NEW ORLEANS -- Federal authorities are trying to wrap up a three-year investigation into the firebombing of a Gentilly gas station, and some believe an even older civil dispute could provide clues about a motive.
Thanks to three guilty pleas in federal court, we already know what happened at 1:12 a.m. on June 22, 2010.
Michael Collins entered the Fuel Zone convenience store at Chef Highway and Louisa Street wearing a motorcycle helmet.
Exclusive video obtained by Eyewitness News shows Collins throwing a Molotov cocktail through the clerk's window. Dozens of liquor bottles erupt in flames. The stunned clerk shoots the assailant in the leg. The getaway car peels out, leaving the attacker behind. He calls for help on his cell phone.
The store workers run out to find help. When they leave for a moment, the firebomber limps away.
Michael Collins admits he threw the Molotov cocktails. He said he was hired by Lennie Brown, who in turn admitted that he was hired to burn down the Fuel Zone – twice – by a man named Larry Moses.
But these men appear to have no beef with this business. So why did they do it?
The federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has been leading the investigation, and agent Barbara Townsend said in a sworn statement that Moses conspired with unknown others to do it. So far, Moses hasn't said who hired him.
The case has some in the community wondering about years of beligerent talk and alleged threats by another gas station operator.
Omar Hamdan has operated B-Xpress gas station convenience stores in the area. His former landlord, Scott Wolfe, alleged in court that Hamdan threatened him. Hamdan’s former bookkeeper, David Fortier, filed a civil suit in which he alleged that Hamdan struck him in the leg with a hammer and held a sharpened pencil to his neck.
Former employee Mylo Brisman signed a sworn statement and told us on camera that Hamdan tried to pay him to beat and tie up a vagabond. Neighborhood resident Ro Mitchell said Hamdan did actually pay him to beat up a few customers.
Hamdan’s attorney, Bob Harvey, said these allegations are lies.
But almost from the moment Hamdan started leasing a store from Wolfe, he talked tough about his approach to business.
“Nobody want to (expletive) with me,” Hamdan told Wolfe in a recording from 2007.
When Wolfe asked him why, Hamdan said: “I don't know; because I don't (expletive) with them and when it's time to (expletive) with me, I'm gonna show them, the only way to get rid of me? Take me out. That's the only way to get rid of me. Take me out.”
Wolfe and Hamdan first battled over property on Elysian Fields at I-610 about six years ago.
Hamdan's wife's company leased it from Wolfe with an option to buy. But then, Wolfe tried to evict Hamdan in 2008 and sell the property to another family.
Records show that on multiple occasions, Wolfe has tried to sell properties to people who can’t get mortgage loans through a process called bond-for-deed. On at least two occasions, before the purchase was final, he has tried to cancel the lease and sell the property to someone else.
When he tried to do that to Hamdan, a former boxer named Fouad Zeton went to Wolfe's attorney with a scary message, supposedly from Hamdan: Drop the eviction or else.
“If I was you, (expletive) the gas station. Million gas station, John. Million. Their life is in danger,” Zeton said on a video that eventually went to Civil District Judge Piper Griffin as people sought restraining orders.
“Their life is in danger?” asked the stunned lawyer, John Houghtaling.
“Absolutely,” Zeton said.
Later, Zeton said, referring to Omar Hamdan: “You know what he say? He gonna make that gas station a nightmare…. And he's going to make a lot of people's life disappear.”
After that, Wolfe not only dropped the eviction, he sold the whole property to Hamdan's wife's company. That's where Wolfe says he made a huge mistake. He said he lost track of which of his many companies owned what property.
And so, for $2.4 million, the price on the act of sale for Elysian Fields alone, Hamdan got the Elysian Fields store and also an old Wagner's Meats location on Chef Highway and Louisa Street.
Hamdan claimed he got both properties when his wife’s company bought the stock for one of Scott Wolfe’s firms. Wolfe claimed the company he sold to Hamdan had already sold the Louisa Street property to another Wolfe company, thus protecting it from going to Hamdan. He has presented a 2003 act of sale to try to prove his position in court, but that document didn’t make it into the public record until after the two sides were already litigating.
Hamdan’s attorney, Bob Harvey, said the 2003 document is a forgery. The lawyer who drew up that paperwork and signed it as the closing attorney is sitting state Rep. Ray Garofalo. Garofalo said he stands by his sworn statement that it was a true property transfer.
Hamdan is defiant, and the fight continues in civil court.
“That was the deal and I bought Louisa,” Hamdan said in a telephone recording. “I bought Louisa and Elysian Fields.” In the same conversation, Hamdan said: “I mean, I'm giving Scott hell. I'm not playing with Scott.”
One way or the other, Hamdan’s wife’s company is in possession of the property. There’s a B-Xpress store, a Boost Mobile, a MAC Beauty store; and right across Chef Highway is the Fuel Zone. Shortly after the Hamdans took over, they and the Fuel Zone gas station across the street got into a heated gas price war.
On June 5, 2010, a man in a motorcycle helmet walked into the Fuel Zone and tried to set it on fire. He didn't succeed, but early the next morning the owners of the two gas stations met on the Chef Highway neutral ground and argued. It got so contentious, that Hamdan alleged that the owner of the Fuel Zone real estate, Mohammed “Hammy” Halum, pulled a gun on him. Halum denies it in court records.
Two weeks later, Michael Collins' Molotov cocktails gutted the Fuel Zone that sits on Halum’s property.
Omar Hamdan is a twice-convicted felon. He faced weapons and drug charges several years ago in Jefferson Parish.
It's relevant because felons are not allowed to hold liquor licenses in Louisiana, and neither are their spouses.
Fatmah Hamdan got three state alcohol permits by saying neither she nor her spouse had been convicted of a felony.
Charged with lying on her applications and interposing for her husband, Fatmah Hamdan told the state Alcohol and Tobacco Control that she and Omar Hamdan weren’t actually married – even though they have signed sworn statements in court and IRS documents stating that they are.
A state investigator wrote in an email last year that Hamdan was part of a multi-agency investigation. The state Alcohol and Tabacco Control had to back off while the feds worked the case.
Last week, Fatmah Hamdan sold her ownership in the three companies with the alcohol permits.
“We have all three of these places on our radar screen,” said state ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert. “We can't help what happened in the past, but as the commissioner of ATC we will make sure these places are run by the regulations that are in currently and also the law.”
Scott Wolfe and others are hell-bent on proving that Omar Hamdan is behind the firebombing. But Wolfe's so-called "proof" is questionable. He brought us three people who signed sworn affidavits saying that Hamdan solicited them to do the job shortly before the final attack.
But for various reasons, they all said they didn't end up doing the job, and one of them – Lawrence Matthews – even said he was ready to do it and negotiated a price with Hamdan, but couldn't follow through because, he claimed, he got arrested in New Orleans on an outstanding gun possession charge.
But Matthews' story about the arrest doesn't appear to check out. Public records show he didn't get arrested in New Orleans in 2010. He got arrested and jailed on an outstanding gun charge in early June, but that was early June 2012 – two years after the firebombing.
The key to cracking the firebombing conspiracy could rest with Larry Moses’ sentencing May 22.
But Moses’ attorney, Martin Regan, said there is no plea agreement for Moses to testify against anyone else, and when we asked him about Omar Hamdan, Regan said he had never heard that name associated with the case.
Hamdan's lawyer, Bob Harvey, has not been willing to go on camera or let Hamdan appear, but he vehemently denies that his client had anything to do with the firebombing.
He also said the ATF agent, Townsend, assured him that Hamdan is not a suspect in the case.
Harvey says Hamdan was viciously attacked by two masked men at his store in January and is the victim of a smear campaign by Wolfe. Wolfe denied having anything to do with the attack on Hamdan.
Harvey says Hamdan is being racially stereotyped, so that Wolfe can force him out of the Chef Highway property and do what Wolfe has been trying to do since they started fighting five years ago – ruin Hamdan's business.