Before honour, reconnaissance

At the Shafia murder trial, cellphone records reveal some disturbing detours during a family “vacation”


Michael Friscolanti is covering the honour killing trial for Maclean’s, filing regular reports from the Kingston, Ont. courtroom to Macleans.ca and weekly dispatches for the magazine. The reports will continue for the duration of the trial, which is expected to run into December.

The cellphone photos appear to chronicle a typical family vacation: smiling faces on a hotel bed, a teenager in a bikini, the CN Tower. But the cellphone records—analyzed by police after four of those vacationers were found in an underwater car—suggest something far more sinister: an intense, week-long reconnaissance mission in search of the perfect murder scene.

It was June 2009, and the polygamous Shafias (husband, two wives, and seven children) were piled into a pair of cars for a road trip to Niagara Falls. By then, the family of wealthy Afghan immigrants had been living in Canada for nearly two years—in a household so divided and dysfunctional that one daughter told her vice-principal: “I’ve had enough. I want to die.”

Nineteen-year-old Zainab, the eldest of the sisters, had recently run away and married, a decision that disgraced the family to the point that even she agreed to a divorce. Sahar, the suicidal one, was showing up to school with bruises on her arms and tears in her eyes. Geeti, at just 13, was telling anyone who would listen that her dad was a monster and that she wanted to be placed in foster care. Rona, the infertile first wife, was possibly the most imprisoned in her new country: ostracized, ignored and prone to wandering alone through Montreal parks. Life, she wrote in her diary, was “a torture for me.”

Yet there they all were, the model Canadian family, luggage packed for a summer drive across Ontario.

If prosecutors are correct, Zainab, Sahar, Geeti and Rona were executed on the way home from that Niagara Falls “vacation,” dumped into the Kingston Mills Locks by the senior members of the family: father, mother and eldest son. It was, the Crown claims, a mass “honour kill” meant to restore the family’s good Muslim name, decimated by the girls’ rebellious, Westernized behaviour. (Rona, if the allegations are true, was essentially a convenient throw-in.)

All three suspects—Mohammad Shafia, 58; Tooba Yahya, 41; and Hamed Shafia, 20—have pleaded not guilty to four counts each of first-degree murder.

On Friday, a Kingston detective provided the jury with some of the most chilling evidence yet: the family’s final movements as a unit of ten, plotted and mapped according to where certain cell phones were at each given moment. On two separate occasions, Hamed’s handheld was hours away from the rest of the family, including one suspicious visit to the Kingston area, where the girls would later perish. The records also reveal that on the way to the Falls, the family spent nearly an hour stopped near a cellphone tower on Station Road—a tower in plain sight of the Kingston Mills Locks.

Sadly, the data also provided the jury with more proof of Sahar’s heartbreaking plight in the weeks before her death. As court has already heard, the 17-year-old told a social worker just days prior to the vacation that she wanted to find a job and move out of the house—and take Geeti with her. During the trip, she was incessantly texting friends back home, and sneaking in long conversations with a boy whom she was desperate to keep secret from her parents. (His name is protected by a publication ban.)

In the four days after Sahar splashed into the water, that boy frantically tried to reach her on her cell, calling the number 22 times. Each attempt was forwarded to voicemail.

Because cellphone signals bounce off the closest tower, police can retrace a person’s steps up to the second. After the corpses were discovered, Kingston investigators asked officials at Rogers to provide hundreds of pages of data from all the family phones. Within days, they had the results.

Things start to get interesting on June 20, 2009, just ten days before the foursome drowned. In the morning (according to a separate computer audit completed after the arrests) someone uses Hamed’s laptop to conduct a Googe search: “where to commit a murder.” Later that same day, at 12:42 p.m., his cell phone is in Grand-Remous, Que., 270 km from his St.-Leonard neighbourhood. The incoming call is from his house. That night, Hamed’s cell returns to Montreal.

On June 22, Shafia pays $5,000 for a used Nissan Sentra, the same one that will plunge into the locks. The day after that, the family departs, leaving town in a caravan of two vehicles: the Sentra, and a silver Lexus SUV.

They don’t, however, head straight for Niagara Falls. They kick off the trip with a scenic detour—right through Grand-Remous, the region that Hamed visited the same day his laptop was churning out Google hits for “where to commit a murder.” The family spends the night at a local hotel, then departs for Ottawa the next morning. Looking at the map prepared by Det. Steve Koopman, their bizarre route from Montreal to Ottawa resembles a horseshoe.

Barreling westbound through Brockville, Gananoque and into Kingston, Sahar’s phone is in constant texting mode, the towers changing as the cars drive by. According to Det. Koopman’s report, her phone then spends a “disproportionate amount of time” utilizing the tower on Station Rd., the closest one to Kingston Mills. Clearly, the family has pulled over.

A few hours later, the caravan arrives in Niagara Falls, Sahar still texting as they pass through Trenton, Toronto and Hamilton.

Over the next four days, Sahar’s phone does not leave the Niagara region—but Hamed’s does. “This one is, to us, the most interesting,” Koopman testified.

On June 27, at 8:24 p.m., Hamed’s phone receives a call that bounces off the Westbrook tower, just 16 km from Kingston Mills. Why, when the entire family is still in the Falls, would Hamed (or someone carrying his cell phone) take a four-hour drive back to Kingston?

The call, by the way, came from Sahar’s cell phone. It’s not clear whether she was on the other end of the line, or someone else in the family. But whoever dialed Hamed’s number, they unknowingly provided police with a crucial clue. Without that call, the June 27 trip back to Kingston would have remained a secret.

Sahar, it seems, took advantage of her brother’s absence, talking to her boyfriend for the first time since leaving Montreal. They had four different conversations over the next 14 hours, each one lasting an average of 37 minutes and 20 seconds. The last occurred on June 28 at 10:50 a.m. They would never speak to each other again.

Hamed’s phone is back in the Falls the same day, and that is where it stays until the following evening—June 29—when the family begins its journey back home. Sahar, as always, is thumbing messages. 7:59 p.m., 8:03 p.m., 8:07 p.m., 8:10 p.m., 8:26 p.m…

They take a detour through downtown Toronto, Sahar snapping photos of the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre as the car drives past. At 10:54 p.m., while stopped at a McDonald’s near Oshawa, Sahar has a 36-minute conversation with a friend, hanging up at 11:25 p.m. Thirty minutes later, when that same friend phones back, nobody picks up. Over the next two hours, every incoming call and text message goes unanswered. The last text arrived at 1:36 a.m. on June 30, 2009, bouncing off the Station Rd. tower overlooking the Kingston Mills Locks.

Investigators would find shattered pieces of the Lexus’ left headlight at the scene, and prosecutors allege that the SUV was used to ram the Nissan over the lip and into the water.

At 7:53 a.m., the bodies still undiscovered, Hamed makes another phone call—to police in Montreal. After driving back home through the early morning darkness, he wants to report a single car accident at an empty parking lot. The responding officer finds the Lexus smashed into a yellow pole, an apparent attempt, prosecutors believe, to cover up the damage sustained at the locks.

An hour later, Hamed dials Sahar’s cell number two separate times. Both calls are forwarded to voicemail. At 11:26 a.m., his parents phone him from their Kingston motel. By then, he is just a few minutes away, having driven back in the family’s Pontiac mini-van so they can go to the Kingston police station and report the girls missing.

Over the next three weeks—as what appeared to be a tragic accident turned into a homicide investigation—Hamed exchanged almost daily phone calls with Det. Koopman, the same man who would piece together the family’s cell records. The survivors had lots of questions: Which seats were the victims sitting in? Was one of the doors open? When will we get the Lexus back? Koopman was also among the officers who attended the funeral—which was interrupted by an ambulance visit after Shafia complained of chest pains. “His father had had a small heart attack, and they were concerned that he had trouble breathing,” Koopman told the jury. He recovered.

In another conversation, Koopman told Hamed how difficult it was to watch one of his other siblings crying at ceremony. “[The child] had just said multiple times, crying over and over again: Geeti! Geeti! Geeti!” Koopman told the jury.

Laurie Lacelle, one of the prosecutors, asked Koopman how Hamed responded. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Just a kid.”

Two weeks after the funerals, father, mother and son were behind bars. The inspector who interviewed Mohammad Shafia showed him his daughter’s cell phone records, and the secret story they told. Shafia was outraged—that his daughter couldn’t stop texting. “Four hundred dollars, three hundred dollars, the bill was coming,” he told the interrogator. “I said I couldn’t pay it.”

The trial continues Monday.


Before honour, reconnaissance

  1. May these three bastards suffer a lifetime of misery in prison.

  2. These idiots should be the first exiles sent to the future penal colony on Baffin Island.

    • No, once found guilty, they should be sent back to Afghanistan.  Period.  To be in their own beloved culture.  Canada has already paid to investigate and try the murderers; I for one do not want to foot the bill for their lengthy prison lives.  I don’t want these murderers in our country any more.  I welcome newcomers, but expect them to leave their baggage at the border.  And I’m floored that Immigration Canada is unable to ferret out polygamy.  Do they even try? 

      • Here’s the problem with sending them back to Afghanistan, however: When back there, they will be recruiters for terrorism.

        I am not Canadian (although this kind of stuff happens from time to time in the USA too), and so I don’t know if they can be held indefinitely, but if the sentence is not life imprisonment, someone has to figure out a way to keep them in a Canadian prison and prevent them from recruiting other terrorists.

        @Freedom_fighter33:disqus the problem is that the 3 on trial just aren’t fit for civilized life in Canada. As for the girls, that to me should have gotten the police involved to take those girls into custody and save them from the deadly fate that befell them; those were signs of abuse.

        • Huh!!!  On what basis did you decide that they would be “recruiters for terrorism”?  While I think they have completely warped values, I’ve read nothing to indicate they are our would become “terrorists’.  

      • I would prefer to foot the bill to imprison them.  Then deport them.  If they were immediately deported there would be no guarantee that they would ever be properly punished.  From my perspective, it’s a small price to pay to ensure there is some measure of justice for these murders.

      • I, also, welcome newcomers.

        Wrt baggage, I assume that you mean traditions/cultural behaviours that obviously run completely counter to basic Canadian values – also agree with that thought.  But I am OK with newcomers bringing the rest of their traditions and culture.

        OTOH, I’m curious to know what types of limitations you would include with the legislative changes required to implement this idea.  In particular, would you have any time limits?  Presumably only for the most serious crimes?  And (minor issue) you are prepared to deal with former Canadian citizens who are returned to our doorstep?

        • As far as I know there would be no change in legislation required to deport anyone who was not born in Canada even if they have gained Canadian citizenship.  One of the promises a person makes in obtaining citizenship is that they will uphold the laws of the land.  They understand that if they commit crimes, they can and will be deported.  This occured in Calgary to a person born in Vietnam who came to Calgary as a child.  His name is Jackie Tran.
          As for Canada getting back criminals that were born here.  I would not at all be surprised that it would happen.  After all, aren’t people trying to get Ronald Allen Smith back into Canada – off of death row in the US?  Do you think the Americans keep ex-Canadians who behave badly?

          • Interesting, I did not know that current legislation already allows Canadian citizens to be deported back to their ‘homeland’.

            Got any info regarding how often this is actually done? The Jackie Tran incident notwithstanding, I can’t recall any instances at all, but all that proves is that I can’t recall any instances. Presumably there are 10s of citizens convicted of crimes everyday in Canada, and presumably at least 1 or 2 or 3 of them are Canadian citizens who were born elsewhere, and yet…..again, maybe it is just an awareness issue on my part.

            Btw, I believe that Ronald Allen Smith is actually still a Canadian citizen, and it is the US that seems mildly interested in keeping him there, while Canada has made some mild efforts at getting him back here to serve out his sentence in Canada…so that is kind of the opposite situation with the former Afghanis.

          • So if the three accused are found guilty and deported back to  Afghanistan, what happens to the three minors currently in foster care? 

          • Good question.

            I’m not at all sure what the laws around deportation indicate, although I’m confident those laws do cover this scenario.

          • OK, wait a minute….for some reason I thought the Shafia’s were Canadian citizens, but now I’m way less sure – it seems that they are ‘only’ landed immigrants.

            Not sure that that would really change my thoughts all that much, but it would partially explain why I seem to be talking at cross purposes to you…at least it would explain it in my mind.

      • I don’t mind if they are tried here, we probably have a better justice system and it will send a message. I don’t know why you mention polygamy, it has nothing to do with the murder. I also think “honour” is overused for its effect. Based on the fact that they killed Rona and the father and sons inability to feel guilty, they were probably just psychopaths. That’s a genetic thing, not a culture thing.

  3. My heart breaks for these girls and for Rona. I want to do something, but but as a white non-Muslim, I don’t know how or where to start. I don’t think it is always as simple as one human being helping another. What they needed was to talk to someone from their own community who understood what they were going through and more importantly, where it could lead to.

    It is interesting that to extract the closest thing they could get to a confession, the police flew out an Iranian interrogator from across the country who spoke the same (or similar) language and came from a neighbouring country with similar ideologies. Why didn’t social services employ the same kind of strategy in their numerous visits to the Shafia household?

    I have worked with many immigrants who, although they are grateful for help, tend to look at people from outside their own community as “other.” That’s why I think any fight against honour killings, or any other religious or cultural-based traditions that put children and women at risk, are dependent on participation from leaders in ethnic communities to be truly successful.

    If anyone on this board has any constructive suggestions for how we might arrive at tangible solutions to keep this from happening again, at least in Canada, I would be greatly appreciative. I don’t think I will feel at peace until I have personally done something to help – I just have no idea where to start.

    • One major problem is that the prevailing attitude of some foreign communities transplanted into Canada including their leaders does not disagree with misnamed “honor” killing and the extreme patriarchy leading to it.  Not many Muslim or Afghani voices condemning the Shafia murders, are there? 

      Official multiculturalism does not allow recognition that some cultures are a poor fit for Canadian values and bring more harm than good.  Tolerating the intolerant ends badly for the tolerant.  By blocking assimilation, multicult results in isolated cultural silos cherry picking from the Canadian menu and demanding off menu items/rights.

      • I totally agree with you minaka2 – there has been more disapproval expressed by the Muslim community about labelling this an honour killing, or blaming the killing on Islam, than there have been Muslims actually expressing regret over these lives having been lost in the first place. I wonder why coverage of the case has not included any interviews with Afghan activists or community leaders – I think that has been a key missing element.

        I get frustrated when people defend their religion by saying that there is nothing in the Quran that defends honour killings, female genital circumcision, suicide bombings, etc. I feel like they should be saying this piece not after these acts have occurred, but much earlier in the cycle – to educate the misguided perpetrators as an attempt to prevent it from happening in the first place. I read recently that there are up to 10,000 honour killings in Pakistan every year – that the UN statistic of 5,000 worldwide is a gross under representation of reality – and religious authorities refer to religious texts such as the Quran to justify them.  Bottom line, Islam does say you must enter marriage as a virgin. To ensure this happens, women endure such trappings ranging from the hijab to the niquab to female circumcision to finally the threat of honour killing.

        I try so hard to stay open-minded, to understand, to accept and celebrate others’ differences, but when such acts of evil show up in our own society – and think of how many we never hear about, that don’t make it to the media!!! – it gets really, really hard. 

        At the end of the day, we are going to be getting more and more immigrants from all over the world, and we need to find a way to make this work. We need to have a safe place for women who are subjected to a very unique form of abuse, abuse that has its roots not in drug or alcohol abuse or generic domestic violence, but in deeply entrenched cultural and religious ideology.  

        How I wish I could have given Sahar the apartment she wanted to get for herself and Geeti, how I wish I could have helped her gain the strength to leave and build a future in a country where you can be anyone, do anything, if only you want it badly enough. How I wish I could have joined Rona on her many lonely walks through empty Montreal parks, to tell her she wasn’t alone and help her build an escape plan. I am sure the 3 Shafias on trial will be sentenced for their crimes, but that alone will not mean that justice has been served.

      • Well, well! It seems like the mayor of Herouxville was not so far off the mark after all.

    • At this point, it really needs to come down to immigrants wanting to assimilate. If they will not assimilate into the country of emigration and embrace the country’s new culture (it can be Canada, the USA, Western Europe, or Australia), that produces this problem.

      There needs to be better monitoring of newcomers.

  4. dirty politics canada have bad regime canada have for them smaggling heroin from Afghanistan or sale heroin in Vancouver or drugs and alcohol is more immportand to looking in justice system school and …is sucks Canada is dirty country

    • At least people here have the right to chose if they want to do something.  Every individual deserves the right to their own lives to live as they wish, in accordance with the law and their own conscience. Treat others as you would have them treat you.  No society should be ruled by “men only” that degrades the rights of women.  
      If you dislike Canadian values, who is stopping you from returning to your islamic state? Canada was not built on islamic laws, so if you prefer islamic law, than this is not the country for you.  Quite simple really.  
       If I move to another country of my choice, it would not be a muslim based country, where I would not fit in very well.  

  5. do not forget also Canada have dirty system and freedom as former Iranian journalist freeland artist I saw very dirty system here , a girl can be raped by 8 years old in school or what I saw here on street ashamfull we should be better human and more educated

    • in Canada if a girl is raped, it is the man who did the terrible animal crime who is punished, not the girl/woman. Islamic sharia punishes the innocent victim, the girl, and the
      male animal gets light sentence, if at all. Big difference.
      Rape is unforgivable in any society.  Men should learn to control their desires!

  6. Since these people came to Canada in 2007 they are landed immigrants and not yet citizens. Canada has been sending people back to their home countries if they have committed a crime and they don’t have citizenship after their sentences are served..
    As an immigrant myself I have seen such changes in the social mores in the 50 years I have been here. I have also worked with immigrants newly arrived. It takes a while to adapt and understand a new country. The father in this case is from a patriarchal society where honor is of supreme importance. A girl from this background can be killed for a perceived crime such as spending a night out of the family home on her own without permission. Mohammed Shafia is not a young man. He would find it impossible to adapt to a more liberal lifestyle. Think of it would any of you find it hard to live in Canada in the 1950..no abortion, no gay rights..shotgun weddings,,,capital punishment..concrete not a glass ceiling for women..no kiss on the first date..lol
    Seriously maybe psychological testing for immigrants is the only answer. Rigid individuals who might find it difficult to adapt might be ferreted out this way.The first generation that immigrates tries to hold onto their culture. They feel that they can immigrate here and send their girls to public schools, let them watch TV and remain as they were in their own home country!!! It won’t happen.

  7. Re deportation.
    Canada, the US, and Britain have been sending people back home. It is not publicized but it is causing a major problem in small countries where the deportees  may have no ties to that country other than being born there. They live on the fringes and find it difficult to get work so get heavily involved the criminal activities there. And they keep being sent…….Not sure if this is the correct answer to the problem.

  8. obviously an accident.you ppl are crazy. they are lying to take advantage of the war.

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