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Shafia family patriarch wields power from jail

A commercial property owned by Mohammad Shafia in Laval, Quebec.

Peter Mccabe/peter mccabe The Globe and Mail

Mohammad Shafia may be serving a life sentence in prison for killing three of his children and his first wife, but he remains the family patriarch in every regard, still wielding influence on family finances and his children's welfare from his jail cell, multiple sources say.

While in detention, Mr. Shafia, an Afghan-Canadian businessman, found a proxy in his wife's cousin, who has not only provided his three youngest children with food and shelter, but for a period also helped manage the family's biggest real estate holding: a strip mall in Laval that was put up for sale a year ago.

Mr. Shafia's 18-year-old son has been groomed by his father to be the new family patriarch, the cousin said, and is acting as intermediary in the sale. Mr. Shafia wants $2.4-million, and recently received an offer of $2.25-million.

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"[Tuesday]night the agent called me, and when I talked with [the son] [the son]talked with father, he told him, 'No.' He asked more – $150,000 more," said the cousin. "Nobody will buy this one at this price because now the people know this guy's a criminal."

The cousin will be referred to as Nasir to protect the remaining Shafia children, who were under 18 at the time of the murders and cannot be identified under a life-long publication ban.

Nasir's is the second home the children have lived in since their parents and older brother, Hamed, were arrested in 2009 after the drowning deaths of daughters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti – aged 19, 17 and 13 respectively – and Mr. Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53. On Sunday, Mr. Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya Mohammad, 41, and Hamed, 21, were convicted on four counts each of first-degree murder.

The children – now 19, 18 and 11 – were taken from their home by the child services agency Le Centre jeunesse de Montréal.

They were initially put in the care of another one of Ms. Yahya's relatives, according to Reza Hyderi, a cousin living in Montreal. But Mr. Shafia did not get along well with this relative, Mr. Hyderi said, and requested they move in with Nasir's family. Ms. Yahya pleaded with Nasir from the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee, Ont., to look after them.

"She asked me too many times. I said, 'Leave [them]in the [child services]' " said Nasir. But he relented, and the children moved in with his family of four in late 2010. The stress of caring for them drove a wedge in his marriage, he said. Four months ago, he split with his wife and now lives in an apartment. Although the two eldest children are adults, they still live in Nasir's house with their 11-year-old sister under the care of Nasir's wife.

Gérald Savoie, adviser to the executive director of Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, which serves Montreal's English-speaking community and several times took a role in the Shafia case, said parents retain influence over what happens to their kids after a criminal conviction. However, child-care authorities can apply to the Child Youth Court, for example, to strip them of any say in the placement of a child or other decisions, including visiting the parents in jail.

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Queen's University law professor Nick Bala said the Shafias' situation is extremely rare.

"Presumptively, parents have the right to appoint a guardian ... for their children if they are unable to care for them ... whether it's because of being in jail, illness or leaving the country. It's a similar issue with property," he said. "But child-welfare authorities also have the responsibility to ensure that the person who's caring for the child is appropriate."

The Shafia case has been examined closely by Batshaw, but Mr. Savoie is unaware of any application to remove the parents' authority over the children.

"To my knowledge, no ... we're still processing, reviewing, debriefing," he said. "We have to be able to demonstrate that any form of contact with the parent would be detrimental to the child."

Fifteen months ago, Nasir said Mr. Shafia not only asked him to look after the children, but also the strip mall in Laval. Mr. Shafia bought it in 2008 for $2-million with a $1.6-million cash down payment.

It appears to be the last remaining vestige of a once-thriving range of businesses under Mr. Shafia's control. Gestion Amanat Inc., a company that imported clothing, accessories, household goods and construction materials from China, stopped operations after Mr. Shafia's arrest. The same is true for a lucrative used-car sales business Mr. Shafia had in Dubai, Nasir said.

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A person familiar with the negotiations to sell the mall said that Mr. Shafia is seeking his full asking price of $2.4-million. He has received 10 offers, all below asking.

"He rejected them," the person said.

For his help with the family business and care for the children, Nasir said he hasn't seen a penny from the Shafias.

He has power of attorney over one bank account, which had a balance of $98,000 when he last checked late in 2011, but he can make only deposits. To pay a bill, he writes a cheque and sends it to Mr. Shafia in jail, who signs and returns it.

Mr. Shafia had promised him $22,500 for playing manager and superintendent at the strip mall, he said. He once wrote a cheque for that amount to himself and sent it to Mr. Shafia. He didn't sign it.

Patrick McCann, lawyer for son Hamed, said there are no legal restrictions on the money and property of convicted criminals.

"There's no law that I'm aware of that strips a person of their assets if they're convicted of a crime," he said. Often in these types of cases, "the children would have some claim, probably," he added.

Last week, the son, who Nasir said dropped out of high school, effectively took over all family finances. Nasir arrived at the Laval strip mall's administrative office and found the locks had been changed.

Since turning 18 in December, the son now also has control of all the family bank accounts.

Police wiretaps from July 22, 2009 – hours before the Shafias were charged – captured the son, then only 15, warning his big brother Hamed not to do anything rash, as he believed it would put the family's wealth in jeopardy.

"Everything will be gone if you guys do something," he said. "Everything you're talking about. The case of money isn't up now, but still I'm saying [to]you the building is gone, everything is gone from my hand – that all goes to charity, to the government."

During the trial, the Crown said the Shafias pondered before the murders were committed what would happen to their fortune if they were imprisoned. In June, 2009, when Mr. Shafia and his son were in Dubai (where the murder plot is believed to have been hatched), a Google search was done on Hamed's laptop: "Can a prisoner have control over their real estate."

All three children have been deeply affected by their parents' actions, but in different ways, Nasir said.

The 19-year-old daughter stopped attending school because she was concerned classmates would link her surname with her family's grisly actions, he said. The 11-year-old is too young to understand what has happened.

"These two girls are the victims, you know? It's not easy for them. Both of them, their life is finished," Nasir said.

When Mr. Shafia collect-called Nasir's house four times a month throughout the past 15 months, it was only to inquire about the mall, Nasir said.

"[His older daughter]asked me, 'What he say? What he say?' " he recalled. "It's just for the business. The father is not thinking about the children."

With a report from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal.

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