Mohammed Taheri-azar's fellow Muslims describe him as cantankerous and unorthodox in his practice of Islam, yet the man accused of running down UNC-Chapel Hill students says he will sacrifice himself for his religion.
"If Allah wills, I will plead guilty to all 18 charges currently against me and I expect a life term in prison," he wrote in a letter received Wednesday by a News & Observer reporter.
Taheri-azar, 22, said that the Muslim holy book, the Quran, gave him permission to drive a Jeep Cherokee into a campus plaza March 3 "to punish the U.S. government, the enemy of my brothers and sisters in religion." The suspect, who is to appear in Orange County court today for a hearing, says he wants his message broadcast around the world.
His pronouncements don't ring true to Muslim students at UNC-CH, who said Taheri-azar was anything but traditionally devout, or to high school friends who said he had American tastes in clothes, culture and fast cars. Taheri-azar says he aimed to kill his classmates, yet he volunteered in the emergency room at UNC Hospitals. Friends describe him as unfailingly polite, yet he enjoyed provoking his teachers.
On campus, he frequented a student union prayer room, Muslim students said, but he wouldn't pray toward Mecca and refused to recite prayers in Arabic -- contrary to standard Islamic practice.
"His prayer was obviously very, very different from the norm," said Atif Mohiuddin, a UNC-CH sophomore from Valdese who ran into Taheri-azar several times last year in the prayer room.
Taheri-azar would not respond to "Assalaam Alaikum," a common Arabic greeting.
"He never had any intention to learn Arabic," Mohiuddin said. "I never heard of a Muslim who was so anti-Arabic."'He didn't even cuss'
Taheri-azar, a U.S. citizen, was born in Iran. His parents, Lily and Latif, were married in Tehran in 1972, but divorced in 2003, records show. Mohammed was the middle child with older and younger sisters.
A woman who answered the door at the family home this week said the family would not talk about the case.
The upper middle class household wasn't overtly religious, friends said. At South Mecklenburg High School, Taheri-Azar wore polo shirts and khakis, did not drink alcohol, ate fast food and played video games.
"He was somewhat socially awkward, not to the point that he would shy away from people, but he would never make an effort to go out," said Justin Kirschbrown, a UNC-CH senior and high school classmate who also worked with Taheri-azar at a Best Buy in Charlotte.
He was reserved -- "He didn't even cuss," said Sean Cordova, another high school friend -- but also stubborn. Taheri-azar was known for making provocative comments in class, just to challenge teachers.
"He would dig his heels in even when he was in the wrong," said Phillip Bush, a classmate at South Mecklenburg and UNC. "In high school, you kind of respected it."
Cars revealed a wild side. Taheri-azar claimed to have gotten his license at 12 and talked about driving cars in the Iranian desert, Kirschbrown said.
"That was the thing with Mo -- you never knew if he was lying," Kirschbrown said last week.
A South Mecklenburg yearbook caption labeled him "South's Speedster." In his souped-up Eagle Talon, Taheri-azar would race on Charlotte's highways, often topping 100 mph, friends said.
"I think he had the fastest car in school," said Cordova, who remembered watching Taheri-azar lose control in a street race, resulting in two 360-degree turns on a Charlotte highway.
Between 2001 and 2003, police ticketed Taheri-azar four times for unnecessary honking, driving down the middle of two lanes of traffic, and failure to obey directions at a police checkpoint. He was last ticketed in June 2003 for traveling at 74 mph in a 45-mph zone along N.C. 54 in Carrboro.Dropping out and in
At UNC-CH, Taheri-azar spent time with high school friends at first. He and his first freshman year roommate -- a friend from South Mecklenburg -- didn't get along, and Taheri-azar moved out in fall 2001. Taheri-azar dropped out the next semester, UNC officials said, but he re-enrolled that summer.
He volunteered as an emergency department aide at UNC Hospitals in 2001-2002 and 2004-2005, said Stephanie Crayton, a spokeswoman for UNC Health Care.
He did menial chores -- stocking medical supplies, fetching wheelchairs and delivering food trays.
In his sophomore year, he was set to move in with another high school acquaintance, Philip Brodsky, but started hanging out with a different group. Brodsky rarely ran into Taheri-azar after that.
At one point, out of the blue, Taheri-azar sent e-mail to old friends. "I think the e-mail was like, 'We haven't talked in a while but we used to be friends. I just wanted to say if I ever did anything to offend you, I'm sorry,' " Brodsky recalled.
Taheri-azar graduated from UNC-CH in December, and apparently had considered graduate school, but at the time of the attack, he was working on Franklin Street in a sub shop.Long-planned
Police say he plotted the attack for months.
About two weeks before, Taheri-azar went shopping for an SUV -- a Porsche Cayenne, some of which cost more than $110,000. He strolled into Performance Automall in Chapel Hill.
"He just came in and looked at them, ... said he might want to buy one," said Scott Trombley, retail sales manager.
In the end, Taheri-azar rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee. He slowly drove into the Pit area, a campus gathering spot, turned a corner between buildings, and then hit the accelerator, hitting nine people, authorities say. None was seriously injured.
Taheri-azar is charged with nine counts of attempted murder and nine counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, inflicting serious injury. District Attorney Jim Woodall said that, if convicted, Taheri-azar theoretically could get about 150 years in prison. He's being held in Central Prison with bail set at $5.5 million.
When his former freshman suitemate, Dan Van Atta, heard of the attack, his first reaction was anger and hope that police would capture the perpetrator. Then he heard that the suspect was Taheri-azar.
"Now I'm hoping he'll be able to get out of prison before he dies," Van Atta said.
Taheri-azar does not intend to leave.
"It was fair for me to attack those people because, whether they claim to or not, they support the U.S. government as long as they are in its territory and they are not attacking it to overthrow it," he wrote, "attacking by physical and violent force, to be exact."
(News researchers Becky Ogburn, Lamara Williams-Hackett, Susan Ebbs and staff writer Cheryl Johnston Sadgrove contributed to this report.)