A 22-year-old Lebanese immigrant accused of placing a backpack he thought contained a bomb near Chicago's Wrigley Field is no terrorist, just someone seeking quick fortune and fame in America, his attorney and a friend said Wednesday.
But a federal judge denied bail for Sami Samir Hassoun, determining he is dangerous and a flight risk.
"It's hard to imagine a more serious crime ... Although it was thwarted, it had the potential to kill many people," U.S. District Judge Susan Cox said Wednesday afternoon at Hassoun's detention hearing.
Prosecutors allege Hassoun took a fake bomb given to him by undercover FBI agents and dropped it Sunday in a trash bin near the historic home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. While harmless, the device appeared ominous — a paint can fitted with blasting caps and a timer.
Earlier Wednesday, restaurant owner Joseph Abraham told The Associated Press that Hassoun is well educated but also prone to big boasts, lies and bluffs. Those may have led his friend of more than a year to plant the bogus bomb, Abraham said.
"Half of the stuff he told you you couldn't believe — lies to show people he was a big shot," said Abraham, 49. "I think what got him into trouble was he was bluffing, and he got caught in a bluff."
Outside the courtroom, attorney Myron Auerbach also described his client as prone to embellish. He said Hassoun had difficulty backing away from dangerous situations but insisted, "My client is not a terrorist."
Auerbach said Hassoun was born in Beirut but spent much of his childhood in the west African nation of Ivory Coast, where his father had a business. The family was forced to flee for their lives as fighting broke out among various factions, he said.
"He saw death, mayhem and destruction as a small child," said Auerbach, who contends the trauma may have affected Hassoun's development.
The judge set Hassoun's next court date for Sept. 30. Auerbach is seeking a psychological evaluation for Hassoun, although he told the judge he believes his client is competent to stand trial.
Hassoun wore an orange jumpsuit over his slight frame at Wednesday's hearing, hunching his shoulders as he stood next to his attorney.
When a marshal removed his handcuffs, Hassoun nodded at relatives seated in the courtroom. One responded by appearing to blow a kiss at the defendant.
Hassoun was charged Monday with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and of an explosive device. If convicted of the first charge, he could face life in prison.
An informant tipped off authorities about Hassoun and befriended him for more than a year. At least two FBI undercover agents then got in touch, posing as co-plotters.
The complaint also says Hassoun waffled about his plans and motivations, talking about profiting monetarily. He also discussed wanting to spark revolution in Chicago, and he spoke of poisoning Lake Michigan or assassinating Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Prosecutors told the judge Wednesday that Hassoun was deadly serious about the plot.
"This is not a matter of talk or bravado," prosecutor Joel Hammerman said. "When the moment of action arrived ... he did so without hesitation."
But Auerbach raised the possibility that authorities tried to entice his client into committing the crime. He said he was weighing a possible entrapment defense.
"The reality is he wanted to make his confidential source happy," said Auerbach, arguing Hassoun was incapable of staging the incident on his own.
Hassoun, who immigrated with his parents and a younger brother nearly three years ago from Lebanon, speaks fluent Arabic, English and French, Abraham said. He also attended private school and at one point aspired to study medicine, Abraham recalled.
His version of the American dream, Abraham said, was "to make fast money" — and fast fame.
"The guy was starving for attention — any way he can get attention," said Abraham, who recalled first meeting Hassoun when Hassoun worked at a nearby bakery and delivered baklava to Abraham's Lebanese restaurant in Chicago.
Abraham said Hassoun did not appear to have any affiliation with extremists. Although Hassoun came from a region in Lebanon where most people are Shia Muslims, Abraham said, he wasn't religious himself — drinking and often going to nightclubs.
"He thought of himself as a ladies man," Abraham said. "He was from one girl to another — breaking up with people really fast. He was having problems."