Fingering The Wrong Man

Los Angeles Times
May 29, 2004
By Alex Tizon

For a single moment, all eyes were on the finger, left index, pale and slender as a flower stem. Brandon Mayfield held it up for all his family to see, and even he gazed at it with amazement. “It was this one,” he said. His wife, Mona, looked up from her dinner plate. His oldest child, Shane, 15, working on a computer behind the couch, craned his neck. The youngest one, Samir, 10, tinkering with his mother’s cellphone, glanced up. And Sharia, the only daughter, 12 years old and curled up on the couch, shifted her eyes to get a good look.

For two weeks, that finger, and the man who owned it, was implicated in a terrorist attack 8,000 miles away, in Madrid, Spain, a series of train bombings that killed nearly 200 people. The FBI was convinced that a print from Mayfield’s finger was found on a plastic bag of detonators left near the scene. Mayfield, who hadn’t traveled outside the country in more than a decade, was arrested May 6 and held as a material witness for two weeks until Spanish police announced that the print belonged to an Algerian.

In his first in-depth interview, Mayfield talked with restrained anger about his ordeal. He was held in solitary confinement for the first week, was handcuffed, forced to wear leg irons and subjected to regular strip searches. In the second week, he was put in with the general prison population. Mayfield, who was told by a guard to “watch your back,” feared for his life. The FBI, greatly embarrassed, apologized to Mayfield and his family. It was all a big mistake. Investigators blamed it on a bad copy of the print.

On Thursday evening, Mayfield — an attorney, former Army officer and a converted Muslim — was back home in his living room, having dinner, and feeling his way back to his life. He is 37, slender, about 5-foot-9, with a wispy beard and a shag of curly brown hair. Blue eyes peer through small, professorial glasses. There’s a softness to his voice that could be mistaken for timidity. Mona refers to it as his trademark “calmness.” His overall demeanor was of a man trying to recover from shell shock. As if the events of the last month had not yet settled in his mind, and may not settle for a long time. “I’m still trying to absorb this,” he said frequently.

His family, too, was still recovering, still cautious in their joy, and still fearful that they are being watched by investigators. But on this night, the Mayfield family was together, at home, and not even ultra-calm Mayfield could completely contain his joy. “I’m so happy. To be home. To be with my family,” he said. “Two weeks ago, I was on a track to a death sentence.”

Dinner was casual in the Mayfield house. It took place in the living room. Friends and relatives who had come to support the family were still there. Some ate, some didn’t. Some sat on the carpet, others on the couch. At the moment, the Mayfields were doing what they had been doing continually since his release on May 20: trying to sort out the story from beginning to end. There were still pieces of the story missing. The topic turned to his time behind bars.

Mayfield, sitting on the couch and taking occasional bites from a chicken leg, spoke as if weighing every word. He said he was still exploring the possibility of filing a civil lawsuit against the government, so he didn’t want to disclose too many details. He was held at the Multnomah County Detention Center. A U.S. marshal assigned him a pseudonym, Randy Taylor. Later, a guard asked his name, and he said it was Randy Taylor. The guard said he knew who he was, and that he better not lie again. Another guard told him he thought he was innocent. And one guard suggested he write a book about his experience, which Mayfield said he was also considering.

“I never felt safe. I didn’t trust anyone, not even the guards,” Mayfield said.

He was moved from cell to cell, section to section, jail to courthouse. Each time, he was handcuffed and forced to wear leg irons. He spent the first week in “lockup,” which was a way of keeping him separate from the rest of the prisoners. Federal public defender Steven Wax said that was done for Mayfield’s protection, because some inmates might harm a suspected terrorist. During that week, he was allowed a one-hour visitation with his wife. The phone calls he made were monitored. He was let out of his cell once a day for a walk. He was strip-searched every time he saw a visitor.

Sgt. Jon Haase, a county corrections officer, said Mayfield was neither abused nor given special treatment. “There are certain protocols we follow for every situation, and we followed them,” he said. “Mr. Mayfield was treated like everyone else.” As they do with all Muslim inmates, jail officials gave Mayfield a Koran and a prayer rug. Mayfield converted to Islam in the late 1980s, partly because his wife was Muslim and because he was attracted to the faith’s guidelines for living.

He said the experience behind bars deepened his faith. He prayed a lot. He worried for his wife and children, and wondered constantly how they were holding up. “We all prayed,” said Mona, 36. “Everybody was praying for him. That’s why he’s here now. I really believe that.”

Mayfield described the detention center as a hopeless place full of sad people with sad stories. “One time I said good morning to someone, and he looked at me like I was crazy,” he said. “It’s because there are no good mornings in there. None.”

As he spoke, daughter Sharia crawled behind him on the couch and leaned against his back. “If you write a book, I think we should all write something and put it in there. I want to be in it,” she said. Sharia was so traumatized by her father’s arrest that she had stopped going to school.

Mayfield, finished with dinner, pushed his plate away and appeared to be in deep thought. Sharia and Samir teased each other behind him, sometimes bumping and jostling him. The kids laughed. Cats — the Mayfields have five — walked in and out of the room. Some lawyers, Mayfield said, put a stuffed salmon or a musket or a picture of a president on their wall at the office, “something that defines them.” In his office, Mayfield kept a framed copy of the Bill of Rights, and he noted that when FBI agents ransacked his office, “the one thing they didn’t touch was the Bill of Rights.”

“Can you tell me what the 5th Amendment says?” Mayfield asked a visitor, who stumbled through a definition. “That’s OK. Let’s ask Shane.” The eldest son, still in front of a computer, said: “It’s the right to be quiet.” Mayfield smiled, and then recited the amendment by heart, emphasizing the part that read: No person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Mayfield said his 5th Amendment rights were violated.

“The government took a dump on the Bill of Rights,” he said.

“That’s poetic, Dad,” Sharia said.

“You can print that,” Mayfield said.

Mayfield described himself as a very private person, and said that the only reason he was talking was to raise the public’s awareness of such laws as the material witness statute, under which he was detained. The statute, much used since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, allows the government to indefinitely detain people considered to have relevant testimony to an investigation. In some cases, the government has used the statute to hold suspects while investigators build cases against them.

He said he also wanted to call attention to investigative techniques such as “sneak and peek” searches, which let agents search a house without telling the owner. The Patriot Act allows such searches, and the Mayfields strongly suspect that their home was searched twice. The FBI, in a court affidavit, said agents had begun watching Mayfield’s movements as early as March 21, 10 days after the Madrid train bombings. The Mayfields said they think that agents placed “listening devices” in their home and that those devices were still there. “They’re probably listening to us right now,” Mona said. “This is how we live.”

Beth Anne Steele, spokeswoman for the Portland FBI, would not comment on the Mayfields’ suspicions. “I can only refer you to Mr. Robert Jordan’s statement that Mr. Mayfield is no longer under investigation,” she said. Jordan is the FBI special agent in charge in Portland.

“This is never going to feel like my home again,” Mona said, recalling the day agents came to the house and confiscated computers, books and boxes of miscellaneous items. It happened the same day Mayfield was arrested. Mona said she’d like the family to move to the Midwest, where her family and Brandon’s family live. She looked at Brandon, as if asking him. “It’s just not possible right now, though,” she said.

As for the FBI apology, Mayfield said he accepted and commended it, but that it didn’t fix his life or the lives of others whose civil liberties have been violated. When asked why he doesn’t show more anger, he said, “I feel anger. But I’m trying to be gracious. As much fear as they put into me, I have more faith in God.”

Mayfield has yet to return to his law practice. He was a sole practitioner in a small office in Portland, handling family law, immigration and personal injury issues. Mona was his assistant and paralegal. Most of their clients were poor, and the family didn’t make much money. They live in a modest house in a suburb 10 miles west of Portland, and they say, financially, they’re probably stuck here for a while.

It’s hard reclaiming a life that’s been torn apart. All the things that FBI agents took from their office and home were still arriving. There are so many boxes to go through still, Mayfield said, weariness in his voice. Maybe the worst part is a lingering apprehension that it isn’t entirely over. There’s a sense among family members that the chaos of the last month ended all too neatly, too happily. Mayfield said something else could happen, something unforeseeable. “After this,” he said, “our worst fears seem justified.”