The alert woke Imani Podhradsky out of a sound sleep early yesterday. Authorities were on the hunt for Ahmad Khan Rahami, a terror suspect accused of planting bombs in New Jersey and New York.
The name sounded familiar so the Linden, N.J., mom went online.
She saw Rahami’s face — and screamed.
“It’s never easy to find out that your friend is a terrorist,” Podhradsky told me yesterday, hours after Rahami — a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan — was captured in a shootout with police a few blocks from where she had brought her daughter to a play date.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It didn’t make sense.”
Podhradsky, 27, and Rahami, 28, were friends in high school, both graduating from Edison High School in 2007.
Rahami was the “class clown,” she said. He had a big circle of friends. He went to senior prom and had a great time.
“He was a burst of sunshine. He was the kind of person everybody wanted to be around, not the person that I see on TV at all,” a stunned Podhradsky said. “Whoever I’m seeing on TV now, I don’t know that person.”
“People were just drawn to him,” she recalled. “He was a really funny, relatable guy who always wanted to laugh. I never saw him not smiling, which is why this is all so strange.”
In high school, she said, Rahami’s girlfriend got pregnant and the couple had a daughter. Rahami’s parents weren’t happy about it and arranged for him take a trip back home to Afghanistan, Podhradsky said.
“He was going back to Afghanistan and he was not happy about it,” she said of his post-graduation plans. “His parents were making him go back. All of his friends were here. His daughter was here. His girlfriend was here.”
Podhradsky remembers Rahami walking into Algebra II class one day looking somber.
“Everyone knew him to be this smiling jokester and he was always very talkative and this one day he wasn’t. Everybody was concerned,” Podhradsky said.
“A lot must have happened in the past 10 years that it’s changed him completely,” she said. In Afghanistan, she speculated, “Whoever was there saw that, ‘here’s this kid with American papers who could possibly help us.’ ”
Rahami was “very, very Americanized,” she said. He wore hip-hop style clothes, baggy jeans and sneakers. He always had a fresh haircut and fit in really well. She showed me photos of him smiling with friends at prom and in a pool.
“I never got a radical sense from him,” Podhradsky said. “Whatever he’s done now, he deserves whatever he gets because he could have killed a lot of people. That’s inexcusable. Whatever he is, he was made into that. This happened somewhere in a bad point in his life. It wasn’t just because this is who he was.”
After high school graduation, Rahami majored in criminal justice at Middlesex County College in Edison, N.J., according to college spokesman Tom Peterson. Rahami went there from the fall of 2010 through the fall of 2012, but never graduated.
Podhradsky never saw Rahami after high school. She recently tried to track him down on social media for their high school reunion, but had no luck.
“He was always trying to make people laugh,” she said. “He was always trying to make people smile. He was always smiling and that’s why people always wanted to hang around him. He made everybody feel welcome to be his friend.”
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