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UNM student from Saudi Arabia charged with illegally possessing handgun

UNM student Hassan Alqahtani made his first appearance at the Pete V. Domenici federal courthouse on Friday. Alqahtani is charged with illegally possessing a firearm. (Roberto E. Rosales/ Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hassan Alqahtani had plans to walk across the stage and collect his diploma from the University of New Mexico on Saturday, and then he and his parents were going to Disneyland to celebrate the accomplishment.

Instead, the 27-year-old Saudi Arabian mechanical engineering student will be spending the weekend behind bars, charged in federal court with being a non-immigrant student visa holder in possession of a firearm. The criminal complaint also says Alqahtani had a list of people he planned to kill, which included UNM professors.

Alqahtani, who recently earned his bachelor’s degree from UNM, turned himself in to authorities on Friday afternoon. During his first appearance later that evening in federal court, Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen ordered that he be held through the weekend. He will have preliminary and detention hearings Monday morning in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.

Authorities allege in the complaint that Alqahtani had a gun and wanted to buy other guns. The person who tipped the FBI off reported that he had also compiled a “list of people who he wants to kill before he leaves the U.S.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney George Kraehe argued that Alqahtani should remain in custody throughout the weekend, in part because of the list that included UNM professors.

“If anything were to happen tomorrow as he’s graduating, that would be pretty tragic,” Kraehe said during the hearing.

The charges against Alqahtani were filed one week after Saudi National Mohammed Saeed Alshamrania opened fire at the U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, killing three and wounding eight. He was later killed by Escambia County sheriff’s deputies.

Joel Meyers, one of Alqahtani’s defense attorneys, argued that the complaint contained “flamboyant language” and asked that his client be allowed to spend the weekend in a halfway house and attend his graduation. Meyers acknowledged during the appearance that the planned Disney vacation with his parents, who had flown in from Saudi Arabia for the ceremony, was obviously out of the question.

“We’ve already told him he’s not going to the happiest place on earth no matter what happens here,” Meyers said.

But Meyers questioned how seriously authorities actually considered the alleged threat. He noted that his client was first interviewed by federal authorities in October, yet he was allowed to return to UNM and complete his degree.

He said Alqahtani had just finished the semester at UNM without incident. And he told Molzen that during a search of Alqahtani’s home near campus on Thursday night, FBI agents took custody of a weapon, which meant Alqahtani no longer had access to one.

But Molzen opted to keep him in custody.

“I didn’t fall off a turnip truck yesterday,” she said. “I know you could have more than one location to have a firearm.”

She then added, “This is difficult for me because I would like you to walk tomorrow.”

She said the fact that Alqahtani had turned himself in to authorities would be given consideration in his subsequent hearings.

A UNM spokeswoman referred all questions to the FBI.

According to the complaint, in August an acquaintance of Alqahtani submitted a tip to the FBI’s website saying Alqahtani had a list of people he wanted to kill, and it included the acquaintance and UNM professors. The list itself is not included in the complaint and it’s unclear which professors were on it. They were not named during the court hearing and no further details were provided about the list.

FBI agents interviewed the acquaintance, and he told them Alqahtani had a colored hand gun that he carried for protection. He said Alqahtani had told him his cousin had purchased the gun and given it to him when his cousin returned to Saudi Arabia.

According to the complaint, in mid-November a different confidential source reported that Alqahtani approached him and expressed interest in purchasing a gun.

“Alqahtani was interested in both purchasing the (confidential sources’s) firearm as well as purchasing an AK-47 rifle,” the agent wrote in the complaint. “Alqahtani showed the (confidential source) videos of a Saudi Arabian wedding with individuals shooting an AK-47 rifle. Alqahtani told the (confidential source) he did not like his old firearm and wanted to purchase another firearm before his family arrived.”

About three weeks later, Alqahtani told the source he was not interested in an AK-47 anymore but wanted a smaller gun for protection.

Eight days later, FBI agents searched Alqahtani’s home, on Columbia near UNM’s North Campus, and found a .380 caliber firearm and ammunition, according to the complaint.

Alqahtani’s girlfriend, Sierra Shafer, initially told agents she had never purchased or owned a gun and the last one she touched belonged to her brother. She then amended her statement and said the gun was hers, although she could not say what make, model or caliber it was.

During the Friday court hearing, Meyers said that Alqahtani and Shafer are married.

“Shafer is possibly conspiring with Alqahtani to conceal his possession of the firearm,” the agent wrote in the complaint. “Shafer made additional statements that the two kept it out in the open in the bedroom and also used the firearm for protection when they traveled in Alqahtani’s vehicle.”

 

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