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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.

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