by Alfonso A. Castillo
Since being laid off from his job as a cargo worker several years ago, Russell Defreitas has lived a meek existence — at times sleeping in trains and trying to eke out a living running two-bit scams, selling incense on street corners and collecting welfare, acquaintances said.
For the past several years, Defreitas, 63, who once wowed jazz connoisseurs with his saxophone prowess, had been unable to scrape together enough money to put down any real roots, or even track down his estranged daughter, those who knew him said yesterday.
He wasn’t the type of person, they said, who could have pulled off a terror plot to blow up a fuel pipeline at Kennedy Airport.
“This is a guy — his car wouldn’t start, and I’d have to start his car,” said Trevor Watts, a former neighbor in Brooklyn.
“He was a trickster,” said Watts. “But he out-tricked himself this time.”
Defreitas’ relatives could not be reached yesterday. His court-appointed attorney, Andrew Carter, did not return a call for comment.
Friends said Defreitas came to New York from his native Georgetown, Guyana, more than 25 years ago. He once lived in Rockaway with his wife and at least one daughter, but has been estranged from them for several years, they said.
Defreitas was hired by a cargo transportation company at Kennedy Airport, Watts said. Documents show he was employed as a “trainee supervisor” in 2001 with Evergreen Eagle, a subsidiary of Oregon-based Evergreen International Aviation. Officials there declined to comment.
Defreitas’ father was a well-known big band leader in Guyana, said one former acquaintance living in Queens, who knew Defreitas from when both lived in Georgetown. Defreitas sometimes moonlighted playing sax at jazz clubs.
“People who visited nightclubs heard him play, they said he was damn good,” said the man, 73 — a retired truck driver who asked that he not be named.
At his core, however, Defreitas was a hapless hustler, always looking for an angle, said Watts, who first met the terror suspect more than 10 years ago when they lived across the street from each other on Albany Avenue in Brooklyn. He later moved to a place on North Conduit Boulevard in Jamaica that was “falling apart.”
After injuring his back in a car accident with a gypsy cab, Defreitas wore a back brace and collected welfare benefits, Watts said. Before long, he was unemployed and homeless, and came to Watts looking for some help about six years ago.
“He had no place to go. He had just come back from Guyana and was sleeping on the train,” said Watts, who agreed to let Defreitas store a trunk full of clothes and receive his mail at Watts’ home.
Defreitas had alienated one of his brothers in a dispute over a refrigerator that Defreitas gave him, and later asked for it back, Watts said. That brother has since died. Defreitas also told Watts he wanted to use the Internet to track down his estranged daughter, but couldn’t afford to do so.
Acquaintances said that in recent years Defreitas made much of his money shipping junk appliances, car parts and anything else he could get his hands on to Guyana, where he would sell them. He also sometimes sold books and incense on Jamaica street corners, his retired truck-driver countryman said.
Three years ago, Watts said he got a phone call from Defreitas asking whether any mail had come for him.
“That was the last I heard of him — until yesterday,” said Watts, who learned Saturday that his former friend had been arrested at a Brooklyn diner.
“When I heard ... I thought, ‘Who was he trying to hustle a dinner out of?’ ” Watts said.