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How arrogance and mistakes led to Shafia's murder conviction

Even after murdering his daughters and his first wife a few hours earlier, the millionaire businessman haggled over the motel bill.

One view of the guilty verdicts in the Shafia "honour killings" trial is that they were the final act in a kind of morality play that pitted 21st-century technology against ancient, twisted concepts of right and wrong.

The other connecting thread in the police investigation was the almost unfathomable, small-minded stupidity and arrogance of the three Afghan-Canadian defendants, borne out of a lifelong sense of entitlement.

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Mohammad Shafia, 59, was wealthy and had essentially bought his residency in Canada under the federal investor-immigrant program. He owned a $1.6-million mall in Laval, Que., and was having a big, custom-designed home built in Brossard, a Montreal suburb. He had cars, property, assorted business projects, and had travelled widely.

In sum, he belonged to a tiny minority of privileged middle-class Afghans, both before he and his family fled the advancing Taliban in 1992, and later abroad.

From the trial testimony emerged a portrait of the man he was at home: A crude, brutal patriarch who terrified his children including those he's convicted of murdering.

He, his co-accused second wife and their eldest son Hamed were not only clumsy killers. They were also bad liars, offering the jury wildly conflicting accounts of what happened on the night the four victims died.

From the first hours of the investigation, the trio struggled to dig themselves out of the hole they were in, weaving an ever-less credible tangle of lies and obfuscation. Steadily the hole got deeper.

And yet, in his hubris, Mr. Shafia appeared convinced they could get away with it.

"You guys aren't hit men, you don't know how to cover your tracks," Kingston Police detective Mike Boyles told 18-year-old Hamed Shafia, shortly after he and his parents were charged with the four murders in July, 2009.

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That is the understatement of this horrifying tale.


Their critical mistake may have been the purchase of the black, 2005 Nissan Sentra in which the victims' bodies were found on the morning of June 30, submerged at the bottom of the waterway that connects the Rideau Canal to the Cataraqui River and Lake Ontario, supposedly after being borrowed without permission.

Mr. Shafia already owned two cars – a Pontiac minivan and the expensive Lexus SUV that would hurriedly push the Nissan into the lock when the murder plot began to unravel.

But neither was suitable for what the killers had in mind. So one day before the road trip that took the Shafia family to Niagara Falls, Mohammad Shafia bought the Sentra in Montreal for $5,000.

It was small, easy to operate and disposable.

But it had one key feature the murderers overlooked: Front-wheel drive, meaning the front wheels had to have traction for the car to move. So once it got part-way into the space above the lock, and became hung up on a concrete step at the edge, the front wheels spun uselessly.

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That's why it had to be shoved in from behind by the Lexus, damaging both cars and leaving splinters of headlight plastic that were instrumental in the police reconstruction of events. In the rush, the Lexus also scraped a Parks Canada garbage barrel, scarring the car with tell-tale specks of green paint.

Staff Sergeant Chris Scott, who headed the investigation, says that had the Lexus not been deployed, the case would have been entirely different and far more challenging, probably necessitating long-term wiretaps even trickier than usual because most of the conversations would have been in Dari, a complicated language similar to Farsi.

Other aspects of the Nissan's situation were also peculiar.

Ostensibly, according to the defence, the four victims had been on a late-night joyride. But none of them was wearing a seatbelt. The ignition was in the "off" position. And the two front seats were fully reclined, making it difficult for even a tall person to have manoeuvred the steering wheel.

Strangest of all, the driver's side window was fully open.

At trial, the prosecution said that was because one of the murderers had had to reach inside and put the car into first gear so it would move forward with its ghastly cargo of four women who were either unconscious or (much more likely) had already been drowned nearby in the canal.

But if an accident had occurred, why had the victims – who included three healthy teenagers – not tried to escape? The lock was not deep: The roof of the Nissan was less than 18 inches from the water's surface.

As it moved forward, at an estimated 8 km/h, the same hand that put the car in gear also switched off the ignition, police concluded. Why? Because the running lights might attract attention from nearby houses and boats.

As an accident scenario, it almost defied belief. And neither did the location itself make much sense. A car could only reach the lock by navigating around a big rock outcropping, necessitating two U-turns, and the opening was so narrow there were just inches of clearance on each side of the car.

All this in the dead of night, with no street lights anywhere.

None of these key details supported the killers' cover story that the Nissan must have ended up in the water because the four women had taken it for a late-night spin, got lost in the darkness and had somehow driven in.

The murderers' ineptitude, however, went far beyond buying the wrong car and putting it in the wrong place.

On his father's laptop computer Hamed Shafia had done numerous Google searches that in hindsight seem incredible: How to commit murder? Does a person in a Canadian prison have control over their real estate holdings? There were also numerous inquiries involving bodies of water. Police found them all.

Nothing would have been easier than to get rid of the laptop, but the killers chose to keep it.

They also made numerous incriminating statements into the bugging devices the police concealed in their car and their house – even as they wondered aloud if anyone might be listening.

Nor did they factor in cellphone technology. The network of towers off which cellphone calls "ping" allows authorities to retrace with great accuracy where a user was, and when.

And as the Shafia family journeyed that week from Montreal to Niagara Falls and back, their phones were in constant use for calls and text messages.

Particularly incriminating was a call to Hamed's phone, a couple of days before the murders, showing that while the others remained in Niagara Falls he was lurking near Kingston on what police swiftly concluded was a reconnaissance mission.

Then there was the defendants' bizarre behaviour at the Kingston East Motel on the night the women were murdered. At around 2 a.m, while the third killer, Mr. Shafia's wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, waited with the soon-to-die victims near the lock, her husband and son took the three other Shafia children to the motel.

But when they checked in, motel manager Robert Miller told the trial, they didn't seem to know how many people would be staying in the two rooms they wanted. At first they said six. But after a brief discussion in Dari they said it would be nine. In the end, they settled for six.

A few minutes later Mr. Miller watched the Lexus disappear into the night, up Hwy. 15 in the direction of the locks. He didn't see it return. Mr. Miller recalled that when the party of six checked out the next day, Mr. Shafia was anxious to get a discount.

The penny-pinching – the motel bill, the cheap car, keeping the laptop – speaks volumes about Mr. Shafia.

Like his spoiled son Hamed, he was used to having his way, which is undoubtedly why he and his wife decided to testify at their trial, an unusual move for murder defendants.


The jurors were clearly skeptical of their testimony. Nor did they seem swayed by the trial evidence of the Shafias' other teen-aged son, who tried to buttress his parents' alibi by confidently testifying that at the motel he had witnessed his sister Zainab, one of the four murdered women, ask for the keys to the Nissan so she and the three others could go for a late-night drive – a story police doubted from almost the outset.

As for problems within the dysfunctional Shafia household – a major component of the trial evidence, extensively described by Montreal teachers and social workers – the son assured the jury there really hadn't been any.

He also tried to explain away the "murder" inquiries on his father's laptop by saying he had probably done them himself. He had been feeling depressed, he told the jury, speaking in fluent English, and had been contemplating suicide. But he wasn't sure about the word for "suicide" and had probably typed in "murder" instead.

In his closing instructions to the jury, Mr. Justice Robert Maranger briefly recounted that testimony. As he did so, the son - now a spectator in the courtroom - broke into a broad grin.

But of all the foolish moves made by the three killers, nothing stands out more than Hamed Shafia's extraordinary account of what happened at the Kingston Mills locks that night.

In all, the jury was given four versions.

The first was that it was murder.

The second was that while staying at the motel, the victims took the Nissan for the unauthorized spin and had their accident.

The third, provided by Ms. Yahya in a police interrogation – and retracted the next day – was that all three defendants had indeed been at the locks that night. Ms. Yahya was walking with Hamed along a dark road, she said, when she heard the splash of the Nissan tipping into the lock. But how it happened she could not say, because she immediately fainted.

Then came story number four.

The biggest problem for the defendants, by far, were the shards of headlight plastic found at the lock's edge.

But four months after the murders, while incarcerated at the Quinte Detention Centre, west of Kingston, Hamed came up with an explanation.

He was speaking to an interpreter-turned-private-investigator, Afghan expatriate Moosa Hadi, hired by his father.

And in a taped statement to Mr. Hadi – a keen supporter of the defendants and subsequently subpoeaned as a Crown witness – Hamed gave this rendition of events:

The women had, indeed, taken the Nissan for a drive, with Zainab at the wheel, and out of brotherly concern for his sisters, he had followed them in the Lexus.

They ended up at the locks, a few minutes drive from the hotel, where an unfortunate incident occurred: On the roadway he rear-ended the Nissan with the Lexus. That's how the headlight got smashed. And he was just picking up the pieces when Zainab drove away.

Then Hamed heard the splash of the Nissan going into the water. So with the headlight splinters in his hands he rushed to the side of the lock, where he dropped the pieces.

What did he do then? Not much. He peered into the lock. He called out his sisters' names. He honked the Lexus's horn. He dangled a rope over the side of the lock. Silence.

So he got back into the Lexus and headed for Montreal, where, by his own admission, he staged a one-car accident that would account for the damaged headlight. Then he returned to Kingston, where he and his parents walked into the police station to say the four women had vanished.

While there, the Shafias were told their missing Nissan had been discovered at the lock and that there appeared to be a dead body inside.

"Only one?" Ms. Yahya responded.

Hamed never called 911 to say his sisters and father's first wife were in the submerged car. He just drove to Montreal.

And perhaps most remarkable, he never told his parents about the accident he said he'd witnessed, not even after they were all charged with first-degree murder. His mother testified she knew nothing about any of this until the preliminary inquiry last February.

That astonishing story is assuredly why Hamed, unlike his parents, did not take the witness stand, where under cross-examination he would have had to explain himself.

He nonetheless stuck to it, and so did his trial lawyer, Patrick McCann.

Hamed made "a terrible mistake" and was "morally blameworthy" in concealing all this, Mr. McCann told the jury.

All the same, the lawyer said, that is what happened. That is the truth.

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About the Author

At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

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