By JEFF REINITZ, firstname.lastname@example.org | Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2010
CEDAR RAPIDS - A Minnesota man who was arrested at a Cedar Rapids airport Thursday with fake military documents also was carrying items associated with an East Africa resistance group, according to court records.
Although a flag allegedly connected with the Oromo Liberation Front found in Ambe Ashenafi Wodesso's belongings sparked the interest of federal agents, it appears the bogus military records were part of a scheme to avoid debt obligations, court records state. Officers with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement approached Ambe Ashenafi Wodesso, 25 of Minneapolis, at Eastern Iowa Airport during a Transportation Security Administration operation.
They spotted him getting off a Trailways bus dressed in clothing that seemed to signify gang membership, records state. Agents decided to take a closer look at his immigration status when they learned he was from Africa.
That's when they noticed a tattoo of a scroll on his arm that talked about the "struggle of the Oromo people" to find equality, democracy, freedom and peace. They also found a flag associated with the Oromo Liberation Front, which is an armed resistance organization that operates in Ethiopia, an ICE agent wrote in an account of the incident.
The Oromo are an ethnic group from the Horn of Africa. They began coming to the United States in the 1970s as refugees escaping oppression.
Wodesso told agents the flag was for his soccer team and that it had been made in Portland in 2007 despite the fact it had a "made in China" label, court records state.
Authorities noted the same flag can been seen on the OLF's Web page as well as on sites for the Oromo ethnic group and soccer teams in the United States.
What also caught the attention of investigators were two cigars filled with marijuana instead of tobacco, a paper with the U.S. Department of Defense seal, four commercial drivers licenses with varying states of legitimacy and credit cards under his and other names.
The Department of Defense document claimed Wodesso was a private first class who had been deployed to Afghanistan from June 2007 to January 2008. He admitted to ICE officials at the airport he had never been in the United States armed forces and said an acquaintance made the letter for him because he thought it would be cool to show his friends.
Wodesso said the letter wasn't for any fraudulent purpose, but agents also located letters to creditors seeking to discharge debt that happened when his identity allegedly was compromised while he was deployed overseas.
One of the commercial drivers licenses agents found was issued to Wodesso's brother but had been altered to show Wodesso's name and address and change the expiration date, records state. Authorities arrested him for federal charges of possession of marijuana, possession of a counterfeit Department of Defense seal and making a false statement.
The false statement stems from comments he made about the purpose of the DOD paper.
If convicted, Wodesso faces up to 11 years in prison and a $600,000 fine.