Like nosy neighbors everywhere, Toris Proctor of North Laurel wove a colorful tale around the guys next door. But reality might have been stranger than anything he could have imagined.
Proctor referred to the five men who shared the adjacent one-bedroom unit at the Valencia Motel as "the gay dudes." Now they've got another name: terror suspects.
People who live and work on this gritty Howard County commercial strip are used to prostitution, drug busts and holdups. But international terrorism has hardly been part of the neighborhood.
FBI officials investigating last week's terrorist attacks have repeatedly visited the Valencia and Pin-Del motels on U.S. 1 in North Laurel, copying records, searching rooms, interviewing guests and staff.
Theresa Gibson of Laurel said she wasn't surprised when she came to work at Sunshine Laundromat on Monday and heard that authorities had been swarming the Valencia, directly across U.S. 1.
"`Did you hear they raided the Valencia?'" she said a co-worker asked. "They've done that before," she replied. "I thought it was drugs." Then she heard what the raid was about. "I said, `Oh my God. And I sit here every day?'"
At the Pin-Del, owner Suresh Patel has records showing that two men with names similar to those of two suspected hijackers recently stayed at the hotel.
Ziad Jarrah of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, Fla., paid $132 on Aug. 27 for a three-night stay, records show. The man checked out at 6:20 the next night and received a $44 refund on his Visa credit card, motel records show.
Federal officials say a man named Ziad Jarrahi is suspected of hijacking United Airlines Flight 93, which took off from Newark Airport and crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
German authorities spell the man's name as it appears in the Pin-Del records, without the "i" on the end of "Jarrah," according to an Associated Press report on links to terrorists in that country. Records of Hamburg pilots also list him under that spelling, AP reported.
Pin-Del records also show that Nawaq Alhzmi of New York City paid $42.90 on Sept. 1 to stay one night.
Federal officials say a man named Nawaq Alhamzi is suspected of hijacking American Airlines Flight 77, which took off from Washington Dulles International Airport and crashed into the Pentagon.
Patel attributed the discrepancy in the last name to a misspelling.
Patel, 61, recalled that the New York man requested a room in the newer portion of the motel, a brick building constructed in 1986. Those rooms were booked, and without complaint, he took Room 7 in the more run-down Formstone-and-siding section built 60 or 70 years ago, Patel said.
He said Jarrah seemed equally agreeable as he checked in and out in the motel office where Jehovah's Witness publications were on display. Titles include "Is there really a devil?" and "When someone you love dies."
Jarrah decided to check out of Room 105 after 6 p.m. on the second day of what was booked as a three-night stay. He did not argue when Patel told him he could get a refund only for the third day.
"He understood that," Patel said. "He never argued, nothing."
Agents have also visited the Valencia Motel, about a half-mile south on U.S. 1. The FBI has declined to comment, but officials at both motels said it was clear that agents believed the suspected terrorists had stayed there.
Rakesh C. Shah, manager of the Valencia, said FBI officials came to the motel once Friday and twice Saturday. He said they spent about an hour in Room 343, where two men recently paid $308 for a weeklong stay.
Shah said he could not recall who stayed in the room, one of 80 at the motel. He said federal officials took his records, so he could not look up their names.
"They took all the information from us," he said. "They took all the paperwork."
Proctor, a longtime resident of the motel, said he clearly recalls five men in Room 343 from the end of August until Sept. 10, the day before the attacks.
Proctor, 22, said he thought it was odd that five men shared one motel room, which has two double beds, a living room and kitchenette. He said he spotted blankets and bedding on the living room floor when the door opened.
"Everybody around here thought they were gay," said Charmain Mungo, 21, Proctor's sister, who lives with him.
Proctor, who is unemployed and spends a lot of time hanging out on the sidewalk outside his motel room, said he tried to be friendly with his neighbors but was rebuffed.
"If you say `Hello,' it's like talking to a brick wall," he said of attempts to converse with the men.
The FBI has paid a visit to Apna Bazaar, an Indian grocery store in the Laurel Square Shopping Center, said Adarsh Kumar, whose wife owns the store. Kumar, who works the register at the shop, said he did not recognize any of the men in the agents' photos.
Kumar said he was upset by the attacks and shocked to think the plans might have been hatched across the street from the store.
He was also startled to see the international media descend on the little shop, filled with homemade samosas, mango drinks and Indian videos. Yesterday, Kumar waved off a BBC reporter who stuck a microphone in his face, but he said he was happy to talk with authorities hunting terrorists.