Gravity of FBI operation unsettles a community

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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WATERTOWN — First they heard commotion, then the shouting: “FBI, put your hands up; don’t move.’’

From the window of their Waverley Avenue home, Vincent Lacerra and his wife could see more than 20 federal agents approaching the apartment house across the street, guns drawn, at least one holding a shield.

Not long afterward, a middle-aged man was escorted from the home in handcuffs and put into a black government car that drove away as quietly as it had arrived.

It could have been a drug raid or a murder probe, neighbors thought, but no one could believe that the federal government’s investigation into the failed terrorist bombing in New York’s Times Square had touched down in Watertown.

“I thought I was dreaming,’’ the 52-year-old Lacerra said outside his home, not long after the 6 a.m. raid began. “It was quite amazing, I’ve never seen anything like it.’’

Raids in Massachusetts were timed with raids in New York and New Jersey. Federal investigators searched the home in Watertown and a gas station in Brookline as part of the investigation into Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born American who allegedly tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square on May 1. Shahzad reportedly has ties to the Pakistani Taliban.

At least two men were taken into custody as a result of the raids in Watertown and Brookline. The second man was picked up at the Doubletree Guest Suites Boston hotel in Allston. Authorities said they were being questioned about their immigration status, and have not been charged in relation to the bombing attempt.

But the suggestion that a terrorist could have ties to the suburbs of Boston set off a sense of unease yesterday among residents who flinch at any police operation, never mind an FBI raid.

Lacerra said his wife, Barbara, ran outside with a video camera to catch the scene unfolding, but he told her to go back inside the home in case shots were fired. Her footage was later broadcast on news stations across the country.

“I just thought it was wild, FBI, police everywhere,’’ Barbara Lacerra, 50, said. “This one house, right across the street from me.’’

In Brookline, Howard Kranz said he immediately feared a terrorist investigation after leaving his home in the John W. Kickham apartment complex, just after 9 a.m., to find FBI agents surrounding the nearby Mobil gas station near Coolidge Corner.

“I used to go into that place a lot for lottery tickets,’’ Kranz said. “The people were very openly cordial and friendly.’’ But he is newly wary of people’s motives, Kranz said. “We don’t have the luxury of being foolish or reckless in this country anymore.’’

The Audy family, which owns the gas station, defended the business and said one of the people targeted in the raid was a new employee at the station, worked part time, and had no connections to the family.

Yesterday morning, federal agents could be seen removing boxes of material from repair bays in the gas station’s garage. Authorities also spent a lot of time inspecting a Honda that was parked at the station, and they appeared to remove some items. The car remained at the gas station after authorities left, at about 11:45 a.m.

Another gas station that the Audys own at Route 9 and Cypress Street in Brookline was also visited by law enforcement officials yesterday, but remained open.

Brookline Police Chief Daniel O’Leary, who was at the gas station at Coolidge Corner, reassured residents they were not in danger. “This is not targeting Brookline,’’ he said.

Officials in Watertown spent much of the day keeping traffic moving on busy Waverley Avenue, as FBI agents worked into the afternoon searching the home.

Agents could be seen carrying brown bags and boxes of materials to two large white box trucks parked on the street. Large orange cones were set up in the two-lane avenue to separate traffic, and police caution tape surrounded the house.

Watertown Police Chief Edward Deveau said from the scene that federal agents coordinated plans with local police, and he also sought to assure residents that the raid did not reflect on the town.

But by late yesterday morning, as word of the raids spread, residents flocked to the scene to better understand what was happening, creating a chaotic mix of news reporters, police officials, and residents interacting with traffic in the dense neighborhood. The Watertown Middle School and the Woodland Towers elderly housing complex are located across the street from the home.

Bill Magsam, a veteran who lives nearby, arrived after hearing news of the raid and stayed throughout the day.

“You’ve got to find stuff like this kind of fascinating,’’ he said. “It’s a little scary, to see this right down the street.’’

Neighbors said they have never met any of the men who live in the home, which was described as having two units of three bedrooms.

Residents also said that there was a high turnover of tenants and that they never knew exactly who lived there. Oftentimes, they would see taxicabs picking up and dropping off tenants.

“It’s not uncommon to see new people in town, so you don’t know who your neighbors are,’’ said Marilyn Petitto Devaney, a member of the Governor’s Council, who said the raids should serve as a call to toughen the state’s immigration laws.

Ed Cappadona, 68, watched the scene unfold from the front porch of his Waverley Avenue home, starting when he was walking his dog and saw FBI agents rushing the house, screaming, “Come on out with your hands up.’’

“There was mass confusion, but it was organized confusion,’’ he said. “It was over quick.’’

Globe correspondent Sarah Thomas contributed to this report.

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