Politics

Arab-American activist's slaying leaves questions unanswered 30 years later

Helena Odeh, 37, the eldest daughter of Arab-American activist Alex Odeh stands near her father's statue at the Santa Ana Public Library. A pipe-bomb planted at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee office in Santa Ana killed Odeh in 1985 but no arrests or charges have ever been filed.
Helena Odeh, 37, the eldest daughter of Arab-American activist Alex Odeh stands near her father's statue at the Santa Ana Public Library. A pipe-bomb planted at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee office in Santa Ana killed Odeh in 1985 but no arrests or charges have ever been filed.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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Thirty years after his death, family, friends and colleagues of Alex Odeh still don't know who killed the Arab-American activist.

“No answers,” said Helena Odeh, his eldest daughter. “I just wish there were some.”

Odeh is among the guests expected at a banquet in her father's honor next Saturday in Santa Ana —where members of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee are expected to honor local activists and also bring attention to the unsolved murder.

The 1985 murder in Orange County

She was seven years old when Odeh's father was killed by a pipe bomb — "assassinated," some believe — on October 11, 1985 in downtown Santa Ana.

Alex Michel Odeh joined the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in 1982 and became its West Coast Regional leader. The group formed to resist prejudices and stereotypes against Arabs and Arab-American immigrants.

The day before his assassination, Odeh had done an interview with a TV news station condemning a deadly hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. In that news story, Odeh rebuffed reports that militants with the Palestinian Liberation Front were involved in the attack.

His wife worried there would be backlash.

Anti-Arab radicals had bombed the Boston office of the ADC in August 1985; no one was killed but two police officers were injured.  

Odeh brushed off the anxiety and headed into work that October 11. When he turned the door handle to the ADC office, a booby-trapped pipe bomb exploded, killing him.

“He just wanted peace,” said Helena Odeh. “That’s all he wanted.”

No one’s ever been pinned for the 1985 bomb.

FBI investigators had said they believed the Jewish Defense League could be responsible. During a Congressional hearing held a year after the murder, the FBI said Jewish extremists were likely responsible for the bombing but no arrests or charges have ever been made in the Odeh case. The JDL has denied involvement.

A $1 million reward, announced in 1996, is still outstanding; the case is open but cold.

A call for a congressional hearing

Lana Kreidle, president of the Orange County chapter of the American-Arab Ant-Discrimination Committee, said she wished more attention were paid to Odeh’s unsolved murder.

“It’s baffling to me that this issue is not more prominent in the public discourse,” she said.

Kreidle said the assassination is considered a terrorist attack, but there’s not been much progress in the criminal investigation. She would like Congress to open another hearing into the case.

“We’d like to see more transparency,” Kredile said.

Every year, the organization holds a banquet in Odeh’s honor. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is awarding Richard Habib, a friend Odeh and fellow ADC activist.

The group is also recognizing Nahla Kayali, founder and executive director of Access California Services in Anaheim that helps settle refugees in Orange County.

Standing near her father’s statue outside the Santa Ana Public Library, Helena Odeh said coming back is always a little emotional, but she does it to keep his memory alive and the investigation moving. 

“As children, my mom never told us too much about what was going on,” she said. “As a adult now, I want to know more.”

The statue was dedicated in 1994. Odeh sits memorialized with a book and a dove in one hand. The plaque below it reads:

“To Alex Odeh, Jews, Christians, Muslims, all were the children of Abraham. He was a visionary, a builder of bridges, which many may now safely cross.”

Odeh, 41, was born a Palestinian Christian in Jifna, in the West Bank in 1944. He immigrated to the United States in 1972, where he studied political science at Cal-State University, Fullerton. He married Norma Odeh and settled in Orange County where they had three daughters, Helena, Samya and Susan Odeh.

Friends remember him as a strong peace activist for Arab and Palestinian-American rights. He taught Middle Eastern history and Arabic college courses in Southern California. He also published "Whispers In Exile," a book of Arabic poems about the West Bank and his move to the U.S.