"He showed me a catalog full of pictures of beautiful flowers, and I ordered a huge amount, great big beautiful daffodils, like the kind they grow up in Puyallup, Washington. I also ordered some wonderful tulips with nice long stems. And he offered such a good deal; the price was very good. It was very hard to resist." U.S. Denmar, the salesman explained, was a new business working out of a small office on Oberlin Drive near Sorrento Valley. Its overhead was low, and it had good connections in Israel and elsewhere that could deliver some of the most popular new varieties.
About a week later, the bulbs arrived. McKinney and his wife Evelyn planted them, then ordered more. "It was a huge amount of bulbs, delivered weekly, and everything looked like it was going great. The flowers were coming along nicely, so I ordered even more." Pretty soon the McKinneys, court records show, were spending more than a thousand dollars a week on bulbs ordered from U.S. Denmar.
But a few months later the bulbs began to produce some unwanted surprises. "I ordered regular tulips, which are nice, long-stemmed, and ended up with -- I guess you could call them pygmy tulips. And I specifically ordered red-and-white tulips for Valentine's Day. Guess what I got? Black ones!" McKinney says he complained to a man whom he knew as "Gus" Doummar, who said he was the owner of U.S. Denmar, but got nowhere. "I wouldn't pay him, so he got all kicked out of shape, and we ended up in a court action, and I ended up not paying him."
In court papers dated July 1991, McKinney alleged that bulbs delivered by U.S. Denmar in January of that year "failed to properly bloom after being planted according to customary practice. Additionally, some orders were incorrectly filled, in that bulbs which were ordered were not received or bulbs which were not ordered by Evon Gardens were received.
"U.S. Denmar failed to disclose the true quality and nature of the bulbs. Instead, the bulbs were represented to be fit for Evon Gardens' purposes. The failure to disclose and the false representations were made by U.S. Denmar with the intent to defraud and deceive Evon Gardens. U.S. Denmar was negligent in digging the bulbs for sale before the plants were dormant and in storing and curing the bulbs. U.S. Denmar was negligent in its cooling and transporting of the bulbs."
But that, it turns out, wasn't the half of it.
What McKinney didn't know was that, according to records filed with the San Diego County Recorder's Office, one of the two partners in U.S. Denmar was Abdullah M. Binladen. Address records show that an Abdullah M. Binladen maintained a personal address at two San Diego post-office boxes during the 1990s. The records also show that the same Abdullah Binladen later moved his address to a unit in an apartment building on Rogers Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A man listed as Abdullah M. Binladen, currently listed as having that same address, has been identified as the half-brother of Osama bin Laden, now the world's most wanted man.
The San Diego records also show that Binladen was co-owner of U.S. Denmar.
What was Binladen, now 35, heir to a multibillion-dollar Middle Eastern fortune based on construction and Saudi oil, doing in San Diego? And why would he be involved in a small-time tulip-importing business -- based out of a two-room office in a Sorrento Valley industrial park, which, according to its other owner, lost $100,000 of Binladen's money before going under after just a few years?
Binladen himself isn't talking. Since the events of September 11, he has agreed to be interviewed by only one newspaper, the Boston Globe. In that story he is quoted as expressing remorse for the alleged deeds of his half-brother, now the target of a U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
"I totally support my family's statement that expressed condolences and deepest sympathy for the victims of the attack and unequivocally denounced and condemned the attacks and all those behind them," Abdullah told the Globe in writing. "I also affirm that the Binladin family and the Saudi Binladin Group have no relationship whatsoever with Osama or any of his activities. He shares no legal or beneficial interests with them or their assets or properties, and he is not directly or indirectly funded by them."
According to the Globe account and other reports, Abdullah Binladen is one of the youngest of 54 children born to the multiple wives in the harem of the late Muhammad ibn Ewad Binladen, a native of Yemen, whose family made a fortune building mosques, roads, and other improvements for Saudi founding ruler King Abdul Aziz , who somehow had become a personal friend. Abdullah Binladen told the Globe he first visited Boston in 1990 after getting a law degree from King Saud University in Ryadh and enrolled at Harvard Law School. A spokesman for Harvard says that Binladen received a graduate degree there in 1992. The school says it is referring all other questions to Binladen, for whom it is taking telephone numbers of inquiring reporters.
In his interview with the Globe, the paper reported, Binladen "spoke mostly about his family's educational ties to Boston and his fondness for the city," where 11 of his relatives reportedly live. "I was fascinated by the city, by its charm. I felt it was the best of both worlds, America and Europe. I think, 'This is the place. I shouldn't go anywhere else.' "
But before Binladen went to Harvard, says a man who identifies himself as Binladen's one-time partner in U.S. Denmar, the young Binladen was a man about town in San Diego, dabbling not only in tulips but dealing in Rolls Royces and Porsches as well. According to this man -- a native of Syria who says he linked up with Binladen through connections he made at a small delicatessen on Mira Mesa Boulevard -- the wealthy Saudi was attending a local university, studying either international law or business. The 1990 yearbook of United States International University lists Binladen as having received a master's degree in international business. Records show he started U.S. Denmar the same year.
In July 1989, the year before Binladen got his degree, the university was threatened with the loss of its accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which said that USIU had "deviated substantially" from academic standards. Faculty and staff morale was "alarmingly low" and the university had "serious financial problems," the report said. The school had long catered to wealthy students from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Middle Eastern countries, and had developed a reputation among many academics as a party school and a degree mill. Not until July 1991 did the accreditation group upgrade the university's status to that of "probation."
Ron McKinney, the Carlsbad nurseryman, wasn't the only customer unhappy with the way U.S. Denmar did business. In June 1991, Hollandia Flowers of Santa Barbara filed suit against the company, alleging that it too had been sold defective bulbs. "On or about December 5, 1990," according to the complaint filed in Santa Barbara County superior court, Hollandia had purchased 100,700 bulbs from U.S. Denmar.
"Approximately one-third of the order was received on or about December 11, 1990. The remaining two-thirds of the order was received on or about December 28, 1990." Hollandia's order, the suit says, consisted of 50,400 "Paperwhites, Gallilea" bulbs; 25,150 "Chinese Sacred Lily" bulbs; and 25,150 "Yael, Yellow throughout." The total cost was $18,244, of which Hollandia said it paid $2000 in advance.
Hollandia alleged that in mid-January 1991, it "became aware that the bulbs were showing indications of a major virus problem." They were "suffering from what is known as 'narcissus yellow stripe virus.' The virus causes infected bulbs to show conspicuous chlorotic strips on leaves and flower stocks, 'broken' flowers, weak flower stems, reduced bulb size, malformed flowers, and severe stunting. Bulbs suffering from the virus are not marketable." The nursery refused to pay the balance it owed U.S. Denmar for the bulbs and demanded $62,000 in damages.
Ten years later, Hollandia's owner, Peter Overgaag, says he doesn't remember anything about the case. "That was too long ago, I don't have any records of it left. I recall that it happened, but that's all I know." On the other hand, Ron McKinney, who is now retired from the nursery business, says that certain major details of the dispute over the bulbs remain clear in his mind. He says he has a special reason to remember the name of Gus Doummar, the man who claimed to be the owner of U.S. Denmar.
"During the court hearing, Doummar stood up and told that judge that he'd changed his name to John Cartier. It was the strangest thing about the case. I knew him as Gus Doummar, and suddenly he was John Cartier. Very strange, indeed. I didn't know what to make of it."
The dispute dragged on for months, McKinney says, before finally ending in more or less of a draw. He didn't pay the balance for the bulbs, but he also failed to recover the damages he says his business had sustained as a result of the bad merchandise he had purchased. Court records show that, in June 1992, U.S. Denmar sued its insurance company, Hartford Fire Insurance, claiming that the insurer should have picked up the cost for defending the lawsuits brought by Evon and Hollandia. The matter was settled out of court on October 16, 1992, according to the records.
As the years went by, McKinney says, his thoughts occasionally turned to his encounter with the man who went by two identities and whose accent he first took to be Dutch. "I think this guy was a shyster. He worked out of a small suite of offices, but there was almost no furniture and no receptionist. When I stopped to think about it, he didn't know a whole lot about the product he was trying to sell us." Adds Evelyn McKinney, "He didn't look Dutch to me. He was a dark, swarthy type. I thought he was German."
Doummar seemed so mysterious to the couple that they drove over to the condominium complex where he lived near Del Mar to see if they could learn more. "He lived in a gated community, and we didn't learn anything," recalls Mrs. McKinney.
After the case ended, the McKinneys lost track of the man they first knew as Gus Doummar and later as John Cartier. "He wasn't a particularly pleasant memory," says Ron McKinney. "It was a chapter that was over for us." But what had become of Doummar, his silent partner, and their troubled bulb business? The question would assume new importance in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
According to a fictitious-name filing in the San Diego County Recorder's office dated May 13, 1991, U.S. Denmar was owned by Abdullah M. Binladen and John F. Cartier. A second fictitious-name filing about a month later, dated June 19, 1991, lists Abdullah Binladen as sole owner of the company. A Dun & Bradstreet credit report, dated August 19, 1993, lists John Cartier as president of U.S. Denmar and says that the firm had 17 employees and annual sales of $2 million.
Public records in San Diego County show that Cartier filed for divorce in North County Superior Court on May 5, 1993, naming Valerie D. Kouri as respondent. According to the filing, the couple was married January 19, 1983, and separated December 31, 1988. In the documents, Cartier says he didn't know how to find Kouri, and the judge allowed him to give her notice of the divorce action through an advertisement in the Herald newspaper of Passaic, New Jersey.
In a form he filed at the time of his divorce, Cartier listed his date of birth as August 31, 1949. He said his occupation was "administration"; in reply to a question about the level of his education he wrote "computer science '88." According to the form, filed under penalty of perjury, Cartier was unemployed at the time he filed for divorce and had last worked in April 1993. His gross earnings per month in the previous year were said to be $1133, which represented an annual partnership "draw" of $13,600 from U.S. Denmar. He said he had received no other funds that year. He owned a 1989 Mazda MX-6, on which he owed $3000, and owed $1000 each for charges made to American Express and Mastercard accounts. He had $2500 in the bank, the form said.
The divorce became final on January 31, 1994. After that, Cartier's trail in San Diego County grows cold. While living here, he used several addresses, including post-office boxes and apartment complexes. Ghassan F. Doummar was listed at many of the same addresses. Records show that after his time at the condo complex on Paseo del Norte Drive in Carlsbad, he moved to Brooklyn, New York. Other records show a man named Ghassan F. Doummar at the same address.
Yet another residence for John F. Cartier is listed in Paterson, New Jersey. A man who answered the telephone there two weeks ago said he was acquainted with Ghassan Doummar but didn't know where he was. "What's he done?" the man asked. "You want to tell him something? Would you like to leave a message if I see him or something?" Asked about Doummar's whereabouts, the man said, "I'm not sure. Like, I will give him the message when I see him, but I don't promise you. I don't know. For a long time I didn't see him. I don't think he's working; he's overseas, I believe. Possible. Last time I saw him about three months ago."
The man continued, "He been here two years ago, then he left, then he went to Illinois, then he came back, then he went overseas.
"I tell you honestly I can't tell you anything unless when I see him and I ask him this is what's happened and I find out what's possible, but I don't know."
A week later, a man called back and identified himself as John Cartier, formerly Ghassan Doummar. He explained that he had been the man who had answered the phone earlier and was just being careful about who was calling him. Speaking in heavily accented English, he said he had decided to return the call after seeing a story on television about his former partner in San Diego, Abdullah M. Binladen.
"I tell you honestly, this guy is really very good guy," Cartier said of Binladen. "He helped me for three years. I ask him for money, we need money for the company, I have to pay for the people working, I need my salary. Sometime he give me a hard time, like I have to ask him three, four times to get the money, to keep the business going, because we have lease, we have expense, but I stayed there for four or five years. Believe me, he spent the money, he invested in the company over $100,000.
"He has a brother who is a big shit, I'm sorry about this, but he's very nice person.
"I give him nice plan, and I couldn't do it. For me, I talk nicely, like I'm a good salesman, and at the same time I'm honest person. I don't steal money. And he trusted me."
The story of how a humble son of Syria, Ghassan Doummar, came to San Diego, changed his name to John F. Cartier, met Abdullah M. Binladen, and went into the tulip-bulb business with the wealthy Saudi Arabian half-brother of terrorist king Osama bin Laden is a long one, according to Cartier. It began more than 20 years ago, when religious persecution drove him out of his native country and to America.
"I came to this country since 1978, 1979, okay?" he said. "But about job or study situation, I'll tell you honestly, I wasn't so lucky. Or my people or my family. I brought all my family over here. Not to New Jersey; they are in New York. My mother, my brother came here; he work here. All my family right now are citizenship over here, okay? I have my citizenship since 1990, in California.
"We came here because over there, you know the problem, the Muslims and all this stuff. Most of the Christians emigrate. Even my uncle emigrated to France. This is 1975, 1976. All the Christian people tried to escape over there.
"We are Catholic. Even now I go to church. I don't go too much, but I go. My church in Brooklyn. If you want to know, go to Brooklyn, too, Virgin Mary, Second Street and Eighth Avenue. Virgin Mary. You go there, you have all my family.
"You asking about my name, yes I changed my name because I don't want to have an Arabic name. This is since 1990, because we have the right to change our name, when you get your citizenship you have the right to change your name. My family get mad because I change -- my brother, all my family. I told them because I don't feel comfortable when I have Arabic name. Even then I don't find good job. And I came here since 20 years, 22 years. I don't feel so comfortable, but still it's better than be there."
Cartier said he held a number of jobs and went to school. "I work for some time, then I stop. Then I go back overseas, I did some work over there, and I came back here. I went to Jersey City at the beginning, and I went to vocational school in Morris, Bergen one time."
In New Jersey, Cartier said, he received the on-the-job experience that later would cause him to go into the bulb business in San Diego. "I used to work for a company, in the land and horticultural product [business]; this is by name Skidlsky. And this is division of Vaughns, the headquarters in Illinois, Vaughns Seed Company.
"This was [a] division in New Jersey. I work for the people about a year. Before that I work as a temp at their place, then they transfer me as a full-time for six, seven months. They said, 'You stay with us until this summer.' This what was the deal, because they don't want to hire someone. They said, 'Okay, we agree you stay with us from this summer until the end of the year.'
"Then, in the beginning of 1989, I went to San Diego, because I have friend there. I went one time, like, to visit him for one week, and I loved San Diego. And I said, instead of look for job over here in New Jersey, and that is what happened."
At first, Cartier said, he lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in a complex on Maya Linda Drive just off Interstate 15 near Scripps Ranch. "After that I went to Mission Valley in San Diego, off Friars Road." Later, he moved to Paseo del Norte in Carlsbad. He said he attended night school in computer studies at UCSD. Still, he said, finding a job was difficult. Then he was introduced to Binladen through acquaintances he had met at a delicatessen on Mira Mesa Boulevard.
"I was looking for a job, and someone in San Diego has a deli, and next to him was an accountant, and he said, 'I know a good guy, he has money, and if you want to talk to him, I introduce you to him, and you see what's possible.' And this is what happened."
At their first meeting, according to Cartier, his new partner was presented with the business plan for the bulb business. "I explained to him the plan, what we do, and I showed him, like, name of customers, suppliers, something like that. He said, 'Okay, if doesn't cost too much money, we'll do the business.' And this how I start.
"Of course, before, when I met with him, these people, they spoke to him, they told him we have someone if you could do something with him. And I met with him three or four times, then he agreed little by little, then he agreed to pay money, to give me the first payment. Then I looked for the place, then he agreed. That's how it happened."
Gary Hochman, a San Diego accountant who, according to a source, had been retained by U.S. Denmar, was interviewed by telephone last week but said he could not remember any details about the business or how it began. Following the interview he sent a letter that said, in part, "I identified U.S. Denmar as a client from a long time ago and for which I provided solely income-tax preparation services. I further informed you it was so long ago and I could not even remember the name of the principal. Since our conversation, I have checked my files, and the last tax return prepared by my office was in 1994."
The letter went on to say that "any negative information published about me would do great harm to my business practice and would be defamatory, unwarranted, not true, and it could affect my financial and personal well being. I am putting the Reader and you on notice: I only prepared tax returns for the above named entity and no other service was provided."
Cartier remembers that his new partner was involved in other ventures in the San Diego area, including a luxury-car dealership on Mira Mesa Boulevard near the delicatessen. "He used to have other businesses, a dealership. He gave them some money because they ask him, and he helped them or something, but he didn't make money. He used to have style cars, Rolls Royce, or something like this, Porsche or something, in the same shopping center on Mira Mesa Boulevard."
At first, the bulb business seemed promising, and Cartier got along well with his new money partner, occasionally joining him for meals. "We went for lunch, like, or dinner a few times. He invite me and never I paid. He took me a few times. But he don't drink. Like, if I go with him, I don't drink, no wine, nothing. If you want to drink, you drink Coke or soda or something."
His partner, Cartier remembers, dressed well and drove a nice car. "He used to have Porsche. A big Porsche, very nice. I don't remember the name, maybe 929 or 928, I forgot the numbers, but something like that. Blue one, dark blue. He used to have nice place, nice apartment. He used to rent condos. Much better than mine. A good area in La Jolla, not exactly in La Jolla, in UTC, in that area. University City.
Cartier also recalls that his partner was studying for his master's degree at a local university, the name of which he can't remember. "He used to be a student. He was studying international law. I forgot where, but he was going to school in San Diego. International school, I believe, or international university, something like that. Then, I believe, he finished his master and went to Boston, to big university. He was working hard to get them to accept him. He has lot of money, believe me. He's from Arabia Saudia.
"He had his own friends from the school, but I don't know. I wasn't really a friend, like we had friendship; I used to work, okay? As a partner, and I contact him when I need something. If you believe it or not, for the four years, five years, he came to the office three or four times. Three or four times, all these years. And when he comes he comes just for 10 minutes, 15 minutes.
"He did other things, too. He was partner with other company, and they didn't make money. He had no luck, I believe, this guy, to make money. He used to be a partner with someone else, too, a dealer or dealership or something. It was in San Diego, he had a partner. He invests some money with people, they needed money, they went to him. They didn't make money either."
Cartier says his business began to sour when customers refused to pay him for bulbs that he had ordered and delivered through a bulb supplier in North Carolina. "I stayed the business like for what was almost four years, but I couldn't make money because some of the people filed for bankruptcy, and the customers didn't pay us. After that the [bulb supplier] don't give me credit to supply other customer, because I didn't receive the money to pay him. This was the problem. Then, day after day, business is no good."
He abandoned his legal fight with the McKinneys and others, Cartier says, because his insurance company refused to honor his claims for legal support. "I have no money to spend to the lawyer. The judge says it's better for you to don't do it. We just dropped it. We couldn't continue because the insurance stopped paying; they don't want to pay any money for lawyer." About customer complaints that the bulbs were bad, he says, "It's not my fault. I bought them from a company over here in the United States."
After those legal struggles, Cartier says, the business soon folded and he left San Diego. "From there I went to Syria for five, six months. My father passed away, and I can't leave my mother over there by herself, and I stay with her, then I came back to New Jersey. I stay in New Jersey, and then two years ago I went back to Syria because I have no job. I went there, I stayed for a couple years, and I came back. Right now I'm working as a bookkeeper."
Cartier says that he and his partner, whom he remembers last seeing in San Diego in 1993, didn't part enemies. "No, but it's not exactly friend or not friend. I contact him after that to look for another job, [to see] if he knows someone over there. This is about, like, three, four years ago, '96 or '97, and he said no. He said he don't have anything now. I told him, 'Just keep it in mind, if you get something for me, I'd really appreciate it.' "
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Cartier says, he has wanted to call Binladen but thought better of it. "I'd like to speak to him just to find out how he is doing, but I said in that time it's not good to talk to him. I like to speak to him or something, but I said not at this time, because right now, well, you know the story, right?"