CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (Reuters) - An Iranian-born Texas man accused of an elaborate plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington was a heavy drinker and flighty businessman who did not fit the profile of a cunning agent, according to people who knew him well.
They say they are stunned by the charges against him.
“Everybody was like, ‘What, Jack?’” said Mitchel Hamauei, a friend who runs a Corpus Christi Mediterranean market and deli that Manssor “Jack” Arbabsiar frequented.
Friends describe Arbabsiar as irresponsible yet well meaning, as prone to give cash to anyone who needs it as he is to hide in an apartment when creditors knock.
They say he is chatty, not secretive. People who know him say he has a habit of starting projects that do not last, from flunking out of a Texas college to launching used-car dealerships, a Greek restaurant and other ventures that either failed or were sold.
He got his nickname from his penchant for swigging Jack Daniels whiskey, friends said.
“No way was this guy the master of this plot,” said former roommate Tom Hosseini, who has known Arbabsiar for 30 years. “Iran has 75 million people, and they cannot find a better guy to make a plot like this?”
Arbabsiar returned to Iran from Texas last year.
U.S. charges against him say that since May he made several visits to Mexico where he tried to hire a Mexican drug cartel figure to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir.
That figure turned out to be a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant, the charges say. Arbabsiar was arrested at New York’s JFK International Airport on a layover on a flight back to Iran in September.
Another Texas friend, David Tomscha, who ran a used-car dealership with Arbabsiar in Corpus Christi 10 years ago, said he had a talent for buying cars wholesale to put on the lot to resell at higher prices, but was lost on details. He would lose critical paperwork needed for car sales or tell customers the wrong year a car was made.
Tomscha recalled how Arbabsiar let a girlfriend drive a car off the lot that she didn’t buy, but she was angry at him and drove it into more than 10 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico. Arbabsiar had to get it towed and cover repair costs.
Eventually, Tomscha leased the lot to someone else when his partner stopped paying his share of expenses for the business, including taxes. Tomscha said he learned of the tax debt when he got a foreclosure notice, took over the expenses and eventually sold the business.
“When he pulled out, I tried to get a hold of him, but he hid out in his apartment,” Tomscha said. “I could hear him inside, but he wouldn’t come to the door.”
Yet Tomscha bears no ill will toward Arbabsiar.
“He’s a likable guy. He just wasn’t very business-minded,” Tomscha said.
Dan Keetch, owner of Keetch Motors in Corpus Christi who has known Arbabsiar for 25 years, said doing business with him could be chaotic.
“One time, he bought a car from me and it took a week to get the money from him. Then for almost a year, the car was still in my lot.”
Keetch also described Arbabsiar as a friendly, chatty guy — not at all prone to secrets. “He was certainly gregarious. He loved to talk, he talked more than most.”
Tomscha agreed. “He won’t keep a secret. If you ask him something, he’ll tell you.”
Public records show a disorderly life, from tax liens to arrests for minor run-ins with the law, such as driving without a driver’s license.
He is estranged from his second wife, Martha Guerrero, who lives in Round Rock, Texas, with their 22-year-old son, Mansour “Johnny” Arbabsiar.
Records show Manssor Arbabsiar bought a house in Corpus Christi in 1994, but it was foreclosed on last year. Hosseini said he had lived other places in between.
Although the Round Rock home is listed as his and Guerrero’s address — and for a time was also the address of another car business called Johnny’s Auto World, named for his son — Arbabsiar gravitated back to Corpus Christi, Hosseini said.
Hosseini said Arbabsiar returned to Iran more than a year ago. “He just got tired,” Hosseini said. “He had no job, no business. He did not have a good relationship with his wife.”
Hosseini last saw Arbabsiar in August this year in Iran, when Hosseini made his annual trip there. He recalled nothing unusual, no hints of anything having to do with an assassination plot or strange behavior.
“I still think I’m dreaming,” said Hosseini, regarding the case against Arbabsiar. “It just doesn’t seem possible.”
Additional reporting by Erwin Seba in Round Rock, Texas, and Himanshu Ojha in Washington; Editing by David Storey