EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 1, 2007

Alleged terrorist's wife paid ultimate price for loyalty

By Rachel Graves , The Houston Chronicle

The wife of alleged terrorist Daniel Maldonado came from a line of single mothers and was determined to hold her marriage together, at whatever cost.

Today, Maldonado, 28, formerly of Pelham and Methuen, is in a federal detention center in Houston awaiting trial for allegedly training with al-Qaida in Somalia.

For his wife, Tamekia Cunningham, who followed him to the war-torn African country with their three children, the cost of saving her marriage was death. Cunningham died from malaria prior to Maldonado's arrest.

"My daughter loved her husband, and she wanted to be a family," Yolanda Cunningham said in a recent interview in her Manchester home.

The couple's three children have been staying in Londonderry with Maldonado's parents since their father was arrested.

Yolanda never married, though she is now engaged, and she said that Tamekia's grandmother was divorced.

"She wanted to break that mold," Yolanda said. "She followed (Maldonado) everywhere."

Yolanda Cunningham raised her only child in Boston as a Seventh-day Adventist; Tamekia's father mostly stayed out of the picture.

Tamekia and her young mother were close friends. As Tamekia grew older, men would flirt with them, mistaking them for sisters.

In 1995, when Tamekia was 16, she and her mother moved to Salem, about seven miles from where Tamekia's future husband was living in Pelham.

Cunningham and Maldonado met while they were in high school. Yolanda remembers her daughter telling her she had her eye on a boy, but Tamekia was secretive about the details.

Jackie Robinson lived next door to the Cunninghams and was a close family friend.

"Tamekia was a very friendly, outgoing girl," Robinson recalled. "She could protect her own self. She didn't take anything off anyone, always had something to say back, always had to get the last word in."

Cunningham dropped out of school and worked retail jobs and at McDonald's. Maldonado also dropped out of Pelham High School in 1997, his junior year.

Cunningham became pregnant with Maldonado's son. She stopped working but earned her General Equivalency Diploma. For a while, she and the baby continued to live with Yolanda, and then they moved in with Maldonado and his parents. About a year and a half later, the two were married.

Soon after the wedding, Maldonado became interested in Islam. Cunningham embraced the religion, too. She started wearing a burka that covered all but her eyes.

Cunningham told her mother that the religion brought the couple closer.

"They would sit down and read and talk and discuss things," Yolanda said.

Incorporating beliefs

Yolanda and her daughter agreed that a husband and wife should have the same religion. Yolanda said she thinks Tamekia believed in the tenets of Islam but that "she was really, really into it because of him, because a house is not supposed to be divided."

Yolanda did not mind that her daughter had converted from Christianity to Islam, but she objected to Tamekia's burkas.

"Why are you covering yourself up like that?" Yolanda asked her daughter. "I see people over there (in Islamic countries) trying to get that off of them, and you're putting it on you."

When Tamekia was pregnant with her second child, a daughter, Yolanda pleaded with her to let her take a photo with Tamekia's face uncovered. Tamekia relented but refused to look at the camera. She wears a pink dress and a pink ribbon in her hair.

Cunningham did not go to the mosque with Maldonado, telling her mother that it "belonged to the men."

But Yolanda thought religion was less important to Tamekia than her husband. After Maldonado renounced music as sacrilegious, Yolanda would still catch her daughter singing.

Tamekia started a small business, Basheeras, selling halal herbal teas and oils. Tamekia gave her mother black seed oil and herbal tea to treat her high blood pressure. She also nagged her mother about smoking, calling her cigarettes "cancer sticks."

For a while, the Maldonado children attended an Islamic school in Methuen, where Daniel Maldonado worshipped at the mosque. Tamekia told her mother the school was too expensive, and she decided to home school the children.

Maldonado sometimes put a hijab, a head covering, on the couple's 1-year-old daughter, though many Muslims believe girls' heads do not need to be covered until puberty.

The couple moved frequently around Southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts as Maldonado struggled to keep a job. He worked at a pizza restaurant and as a butcher. They moved to Chicago, telling Yolanda that Maldonado had gotten a job as a butcher in a halal shop there. He hurt his finger at work and quit. Then they moved back to New Hampshire for about two years.

Maldonado got a job working with computers. His boss lived in Houston and asked the couple to relocate. After they had lived in Houston for a while, he sent them to Egypt, saying it would be cheaper to pay them in Egyptian pounds than in American dollars.

At first, Yolanda talked to her daughter in Egypt by phone three or four times a day. Tamekia told her mother they had an apartment in Alexandria and had found a school for the kids where the students were a mix of races and religions.

She was pregnant again and talked about returning to the United States to have the baby, but Maldonado did not want her to. The couple's third child, a girl, was born in Egypt.

Communication issues

After they had been in Egypt for a few months, Cunningham told her mother they were losing their apartment and had to move. She told her that they were in a small town - Yolanda did not know the name - and that there were delays in getting their phone service installed.

After that, Yolanda did not speak to her daughter on the phone for about six months, she said. Occasionally, they would be on the Internet at the same time and communicate through instant messaging.

In late November or early December, Cunningham called her mother. She said the family was in Somalia.

"What are you doing in Somalia?" Yolanda asked. "There's so many diseases there, famine, everything."

Cunningham told her mother that they were all right. Yolanda could hear the kids playing in the background.

"And all of a sudden the phone clicked."

Yolanda never heard from her daughter again.

On Jan. 30, Yolanda came home from work to find a message from a man in the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. Yolanda woke up at 4 the next morning to return the call during business hours in Kenya.

"He said he was calling to inform me that my daughter was dead," Yolanda said, her voice cracking and tears running down her face. "I couldn't talk. I cried and I cried and I cried."

Through numerous phone calls, the embassy official explained that the family had been traveling, apparently from Somalia to Kenya. Males and females were in separate cars, so the couple's oldest child, a 9-year-old boy, rode with Maldonado, and the two young daughters, ages 4 and 7 months, were in a vehicle with Tamekia. Yolanda asked that the names of her grandchildren not be published.

The best source on what happened to Tamekia is apparently her 4-year-old daughter. She told officials "that her mother was hot and burning up with a fever, and then she closed her eyes and went to sleep and never woke up."

Officials think Tamekia had malaria. The group apparently buried Tamekia immediately, somewhere between Somalia and Kenya.

"They don't even know exactly where the body is," Yolanda said. She also does not know exactly when her daughter died. The embassy official told her it was mid-January or earlier.

Kenyan officials arrested Maldonado and kept him in a local jail until the FBI extradited him to Houston. The children stayed in the jail with him, Yolanda said.

On Feb. 13, American officials flew the children to Boston. Yolanda and Maldonado's parents, Jose and Rena, met them there. Yolanda said they all cried and laughed and hugged. Maldonado's parents have custody, but Yolanda sees the children frequently.

Yolanda said she is trying not to be angry with Maldonado.

"I try to forgive because that's how the Lord wants you to do, to forgive. I'm more hurt than angry," she said. "If he was going to go over there and do something that he wasn't supposed to do, why couldn't he send them back so they could be safe?"

This report supplied courtesy of the Houston Chronicle.