Philadelphia She married young and badly. She bounced checks at Pizza Hut and the grocery. She hit the bottle to excess sometimes, talked to her cats, and once attempted suicide.
And, as “JihadJane,” she spewed violent-sounding vitriol online for all the world — including law enforcement — to see.
From what’s known about her so far, Colleen Renee LaRose is not coming off as the sharpest jihadist in the suburbs.
The life of the Pennsburg, Pa., woman who is due in federal court Thursday on terrorism charges is sounding ever more sad than scary.
“She’s had a hard life, so tough that her life story is like a country music song,” said a person close to the investigation.
LaRose, 46, is scheduled for arraignment next week in federal court in Philadelphia, accused of conspiring to support Islamic extremists and plotting to assassinate a Swedish artist.
Arrested in October and kept under federal wraps since, LaRose became international news Tuesday afternoon when her indictment was unsealed.
All of which has left many, including the man with whom she lived, scratching their heads. Although LaRose has had her share of legal scrapes, they had always been the stuff of misdemeanor court, not national security threats.
“We were together about five years,” said former boyfriend Kurt Gorman of Pennsburg. Had anyone accused her of terrorism, he said, “I would’ve thought it was a joke.”
Yet federal authorities say LaRose flew to Europe Aug. 23 “with the intent to live and train with jihadists, and to find and kill” Swedish artist Lars Vilks, whose 2007 portrait of the prophet Muhammad as a dog outraged some Muslims.
With her went Gorman’s U.S. passport, authorities say, intended for a male coconspirator’s use. Diminutive, white and blonde, LaRose allegedly wrote in an e-mail last year that her appearance would help her “blend in with many people” in Europe.
All of which baffled Gorman, who said LaRose mostly hung around their Pennsburg apartment. He had met her on a business trip to Texas; his Quakertown-area firm makes broadcasting equipment for radio stations.
Last summer, he traveled with her to the Netherlands; soon afterward, his ailing father, whom LaRose took care of, died of a heart attack. On the day after the funeral in August, Gorman came home to find LaRose gone. On Aug. 23, authorities say, LaRose went back to Europe; she was arrested Oct. 16 at Philadelphia International Airport as she stepped off a plane.
Colleen LaRose came of age in Texas, where a neighbor said her parents once ran a radio station. In 1980, according to records, she was 16 when a justice of the peace in the Fort Worth area married her to a man twice her age.
Eight years later, she was back at the altar to wed Rodolfo Cavazos, a union that lasted a decade before ending in divorce in west Texas.
Her divorce lawyer, William R. Moore, now semiretired, remembers the couple well. Cavazos played cards for a living but “didn’t appear to me to be a big thug type; he wasn’t a drug dealer or anything.” LaRose, he said, was short, slender and polite, and “worked for some type of cleaning service there in San Angelo.”
Moore had not connected that woman to the story he read in the morning newspaper until it was brought up in an interview. “She seemed like a pretty decent person from the lower side of life,” he said. “She was always nice, said ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, ma’am,’ all that other kind of stuff. I never pictured her as being, certainly, what’s coming out now.”
Not that all was perfect in LaRose’s life.
She was fined for criminal trespass in 1985 and got a drunken-driving charge in 1997, the same year she passed four bad checks — three for groceries, one to Pizza Hut — totaling $390.71.
LaRose had a chance in 2008 to make restitution and get the case dismissed. But she couldn’t be found, and authorities in Texas have an open warrant for her arrest. “If she shows up around here, we’ll be obligated to put her in jail,” William Jacobs, a court administrator in Tom Green County, said without a hint of irony.
LaRose was in Pennsylvania by 2002, when court records in Montgomery County show convictions for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct for fighting, and walking too close to the highway.
Alcohol figured more ominously on May 21, 2005, when LaRose, drunk and depressed over her father’s recent death, swallowed eight to 10 prescription muscle relaxers.
Pennsburg police officer Michael Devlin, now chief, reported that LaRose’s sister near Dallas summoned police after a long-distance call. Devlin found LaRose “highly intoxicated and having difficulty maintaining her balance.”
LaRose told Devlin “she does not want to die,” the report said, and she was taken to a hospital in Quakertown. Police told LaRose’s boyfriend she seemed very depressed and suggested getting her counseling. Her lawyer, public defender Mark Wilson, declined Wednesday to talk about LaRose or the charges against her, as did J.J. Klaver, the FBI’s Philadelphia spokesman.
Her Pennsburg neighbors weren’t so reserved. They said she seemed to have no job.
Kristy Newell, who used to live across the hall, said LaRose kept to herself and talked loudly to her two indoor Persian cats.
“She would say things like, ‘Oh, my babies,’ at the top of her lungs,” Newell said.
She said she never saw LaRose in any Muslim attire. “When I saw her, she was mainly in shorts and T-shirts.”