Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu has been denied bail by a US court. Mr. Woewiyu, a former spokesman for the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) is facing a potentially lengthy prison term in the United States for alleged immigration fraud.
He was planning to run for Senate in the upcoming special senatorial election.
And despite living for the last four decades as a legal permanent resident in Delaware County, he and his wife maintain extensive real estate holdings, including a rubber farm in Liberia.
"He is very, very much involved in public life in Liberia," said prosecutor Linwood C. Wright. "He has an infrastructure there [Liberia] that is more substantial than what he has here [US]."
On Friday, a U.S. magistrate judge agreed and ordered Woewiyu, 69, held without bond while he awaits trial on allegations he lied to immigration officers about his past with Taylor, who is serving a 50-year term in a British prison.
But in arguing for his release, Woewiyu's lawyer, Benjamin G. Perez, suggested that what government attorneys misunderstood was that having a life on both sides of the Atlantic is the norm for much of Southeastern Pennsylvania's 15,000-member Liberian expatriate community.
In the African hair salons and grocery stores that have sprung up along thoroughfares such as Woodland Avenue, shoppers tell tales of family living here and there. Rivalries cross oceans, and men in T-shirts and jeans are equally likely to introduce themselves as café owners or dignitaries from nations thousands of miles away.
Such was the manner in which Liberian expat Jeffrey Harmon introduced himself Friday in the hallway of the federal courthouse.
"This is all political," he said of Woewiyu's arrest. "This all has to do with politics back at home."
His concerns mirrored conspiracy theories snaking their way through the Liberian immigrant community in the days since Woewiyu's arrest. Homeland Security detained him Monday at Newark Liberty International Airport as he returned from a campaign trip to Monrovia, Liberia's capital.
The charges against him stem from a 2006 application for U.S. citizenship. Asked on the form whether he had ever advocated for the toppling of a foreign government or persecuted minority groups, Woewiyu said no.
Prosecutors, however, call him a war criminal – linking him to the worst atrocities of Taylor's regime.
Throughout back-to-back civil wars that wracked Liberia from 1989 to 2003, Woewiyu served as the U.S.-based spokesman and defense minister to Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
The party had mounted a violent campaign to wrest control from Taylor's predecessor, Samuel Doe, in 1996, but then turned its weapons on countrymen in an effort to hold on to power – executing political opponents, conscripting boys into child armies, and forcing girls into prostitution. Taylor was convicted of those crimes by an international court in 2012. Woewiyu – who served as labor minister in Taylor's government and president pro tempore of the Senate before breaking politically with Taylor – remained here.
For years, he has resided with his wife in a two-story home in Collingdale. They have enjoyed a prominent role in Delaware County's immigrant community.
He earned a bachelor's degree in labor studies from Rutgers University in 1981. He is pursuing a master's from Pennsylvania State University while earning a living through real estate development.
Six of his grown children also live in the United States. One is a lieutenant in the Navy.
"I am very surprised," said the Rev. Moses Dennis of Faith Immanuel Lutheran Church in East Lansdowne, which caters to a large Liberian congregation. Woewiyu occasionally attended services at there.
"He comes across very genuine," Dennis said. "He's a politician. A politician, you know."
Others preferred to keep their opinions to themselves, fearful that anything said here could mean trouble for family abroad. For, as U.S. prosecutors said Friday, Woewiyu maintains a high profile in his homeland.