Baseball fan in Medford who loved cars, G.I. Joes and wrestling. Exemplary altar boy at a Patchogue church.
That's what neighbors and friends say they remember most about Bryant Neal Vinas. And their memories have only deepened the mystery of how Vinas went from Patchogue to Pakistan and later Afghanistan, in a determined drive toward jihad.
A quiet but polite and friendly boy, he left behind scant clues about his transformation.
"What happened in his head, I don't know," said Francisco Diaz-Granados, a deacon at St. Francis de Sales, the Catholic church in Patchogue where Vinas and his family worshipped. "I was shocked."
After converting to Islam about five years ago and regularly attending prayer services at a mosque in Selden, the slender, baby-faced, North Patchogue resident left Long Island two years ago for Pakistan and joined al-Qaida, according to the FBI.
Family active in church
Vinas came from a family that was active in the church's Latino community, Diaz-Granados said.
His father, Juan, an emigrant from Peru, was a lector who read the Bible to the congregation at the Spanish Mass each Sunday - "one of our best lectors ever," recalled Diaz-Granados.
And the son, he said, "was very polite, always. He was a great kid. His family upbringing was excellent."
Later, when Bryant, 26, went to work as a teenager at the Sam's Club in Medford, he would run up and hug Diaz-Granados when he saw him, the deacon said.
Carvin Desroches, 20, and his father, Yves, said they lived near Vinas in Medford and that he enjoyed cars, eating and baseball.
"He's a baseball fanatic, a Mets fan," said Yves Desroches. "He was always with a baseball hat."
Carvin Desroches recalled that Vinas lived with the Desroches for about two weeks. Vinas would ride his bike for miles to junior varsity baseball practice at Longwood High School, he said.
When the two boys played catch, Carvin Desroches said he had to tell Vinas "not to throw so hard because he kept hurting my hand."
Bryant "was extremely close to us," Yves Desroches said. "We've got tons of pictures with Bryant, with our kids, and parties in the pool. And Bryant [was] never showing any signs of a kid who needs to be disciplined."
The al-Qaida connection "doesn't really fit into the category of the person I knew Bryant was as a young man," Yves Desroches said.
Carvin Desroches said he saw Vinas at a Checkers restaurant in Selden in the summer of 2007. Vinas told him he was going away but did not say where and did not talk about his conversion to Islam, Desroches said.
Another childhood friend, Eric, who did not want his last name used, recalled playing with toys, video games and G.I. Joes with Vinas when they were kids. He said Vinas seemed to go through some kind of "straight edge" born-again Christian stage at one point, drawing "Xs" on his hand to underscore his commitment to no drugs or alcohol.
Vinas was educated in the Longwood school district, first going to Charles Walters Elementary School, then Longwood Middle School and finally Longwood High School.
Mary Grace Blackwood, Vinas' seventh-grade homeroom teacher, said Saturday that she didn't recall Vinas. "I have to tell you, in my 30 years of teaching, I never had a terrorist in my class," Blackwood said. "I can't tell you anything about him. Nothing stands out."
While Vinas' name was on an official list of graduates of Longwood High in 2001, there is not a trace of him in that year's school yearbook.
Though many neighbors and friends say Vinas' childhood seemed uneventful, it was marked by one potentially shattering experience: his parents' divorce. Bryant first lived with his mother, Maria Luisa Uraga, and younger sister, Lina, in Medford, but then went to live with his father in North Patchogue.
Uraga, an emigrant from Argentina, says she has not had contact with her son for 10 years.
Why did he turn to Islam?
It's not clear what spurred Vinas' turn to Islam, but leaders of the Selden mosque - the Islamic Association of Long Island - said he never quite fit in there.
Most of the congregation has roots in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or the Middle East, said the mosque's president, Nayyar Imam. Vinas didn't speak their languages, share their cultures or have children who could help him mix with other families, Imam said.
He just showed up to pray about four or five times a week and promptly left, Imam said. While he was polite and often smiling, few congregants knew him or anything about him, he said.
Imam said Vinas did not undergo his conversion to Islam at the mosque.
He also said he had no idea what led Vinas to terrorism, since the mosque abhors al-Qaida and its hatred of America. "I did not see anything fanatic" about Vinas, said Imam, a pharmacist originally from Pakistan. "I think he got these [radical] ideas when he left."
Law enforcement sources familiar with Vinas' case say that, in the words of one, he was "self-motivated, self-recruited, self-radicalized" to join terrorists.
The sources say a group of Pakistanis Vinas knew in the New York area, through his religious conversion, put him in touch with their friends and relatives in their native country, which is how Vinas ended up in Pakistan with people who would take him in.
But the sources stressed that the New York area people were not part of a terrorist funnel, channeling recruits to al-Qaida. Rather, Vinas got into the right place in Pakistan for a would-be terrorist because of what was said to be his "persistence" and because he was viewed by his helpers as a solid fundamentalist Muslim. There are no plans to arrest anyone in New York who may have helped him, sources said.
A similar scenario played out initially in Pakistan with the first people who put up Vinas there, the sources said. These people weren't necessarily terrorists, but eventually one put him in touch with someone who got him into the lower ranks of the terror network.
The sources said it took some time after he was arrested to get Vinas to cooperate, but investigators never touched him or hurt him. His confessions came through talking to him and finding the right buttons to push, they said.
Back on the Island, the entire episode seems surreal to many who knew him. "We were so shocked," said Diaz-Granados, the church deacon in Patchogue. "It's very hard to believe."