Standing in the witness box, hand on the Quran, Mohammad Shafia promised to “state the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me Allah.” And for a few minutes, at least, the accused “honour killer” did exactly that. He told the jury he was born in Kabul, Afghanistan (true), that he is a very wealthy businessman (true), and that he had two wives and seven children (true, until the night one of those wives and three of those children ended up at the bottom of the Rideau Canal).
Dressed in a beige sport coat, his face freshly shaven, the 58-year-old continued to lay out his version of reality: the Shafias were a “liberal family.” He always gave the kids as much money as they wanted, above and beyond their $100-per-month allowance. God—“no one else”—determines when people die. And although he offered plenty of fatherly advice, his doomed daughters were free to choose their own clothes, their own paths, and their own husbands. “I didn’t interfere,” he said. “It was their life.”
Then the questions turned to the wiretaps, those now-infamous rants secretly recorded by police in the days following the funerals.
“They were treacherous.”
“They betrayed Islam.”
“We lost our honour.”
“May the devil s–t on their graves!”
Peter Kemp, Shafia’s lawyer, asked his client to provide some context. “What did you mean by that?”
“To me, it means the devil would go out and check with them in their graves,” he explained. “If they have done a good thing, it would be good. If they did bad, it will be up to God what to do.”
The truth, according to Mohammad Shafia: “s–t” means “check,” and everyone—except him—is full of it.
It’s been almost 2½ years since three of his daughters (Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13) were discovered in an underwater car, floating beside their “auntie,” Rona Amir Mohammad, who was actually their dad’s first wife in the polygamous home. According to prosecutors in Kingston, Ont., what was staged to look like a tragic wrong turn was in fact a mass murder motivated by a demented sense of family “honour”—and carried out, under the cover of darkness, by the family’s senior leadership: Shafia, the girls’ own father, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, their own mother, and Hamed Shafia, their own brother.
In the weeks to come, a jury will decide whether the plunge was an accident or an execution, and the patriarch’s two days on the witness stand—part tearful, part ramble, all denial—is sure to be at the heart of those deliberations. He is, after all, the face of this sensational trial, the immigrant father who ruled his house with fists and fear, and who allegedly decided that his “filthy” daughters deserved to die.
But as riveting as his testimony was for those squeezed inside the courtroom, the arrival of the next witness was even more dramatic: Shafia’s other son, the one who isn’t shackled beside him in the prisoners’ box.
To refresh, the accused husband and wife had seven children in all: three dead, one charged, and three survivors. Those who lived were removed from the family’s Montreal home the day before the arrests, and until his appearance in court, the other son had not laid eyes on his parents or his brother since July 2009. Mom and dad sobbed at first sight of their little boy—15 when he was seized—all grown up. He waved and nodded and flashed some nervous smiles.
And when the questions began, he sounded a lot like the witness who preceded him. “When I read the newspaper articles about this case, it’s like I don’t even know these people,” said the son, whose identity is protected by a publication ban. “The media has set up a completely different personality. All that isn’t true.”
Like all accused criminals, Shafia had every right to remain silent while prosecutors try to prove their case, and his decision to take the stand was the riskiest of legal strategies. Calling his surviving son as a witness was almost as dangerous, considering his own sketchy relationship with the truth. But faced with such damning evidence (the Crown’s submission spanned six weeks and two dozen witnesses), Shafia and his lawyer obviously believed that his own words were the best hope of raising even a shred of reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors.
The truth? It didn’t go too well.
The wiretaps are accurate, Shafia admitted. His daughters were lying, deceiving “whores” who snuck around with boys and broke his heart. But just Zainab and Sahar. Not Geeti. She just stole things from Wal-Mart, among other “mischievous habits.” And yes, he said, their behaviour was an agonizing blow, and that’s why he cursed them so viciously while police were eavesdropping. “My honour is important to me,” he conceded.
But mass murder? Purity through bloodshed? The Quran would never condone such a thing, he testified. “To kill someone, you can’t regain your respect and honour,” Shafia told Laurie Lacelle, the prosecutor who conducted his cross-examination. “Respected lady, you should know that. In our religion, a person who kills his wife or daughter, there is nothing more dishonourable . . . How is it possible that someone would do that to their children, respected lady?”
“You might do it,” Lacelle shot back, “if you thought they were whores.”
Hour after hour, question after question, Lacelle used Shafia’s own words as her primary weapon, pecking away at nearly everything he has ever said about June 30, 2009—both to police, and when he thought only his wife and son were listening. By the end, Shafia was wiping away tears. Her dissection was that devastating.
“Would it be fair to say that you believed your daughters’ actions brought about their own deaths?” Lacelle asked.
“Respected lady, that was an accident,” Shafia answered.
“I will suggest that you believed your daughters and Rona were treacherous and you were entitled to kill them.”
“You believed God punished your daughters,” she continued.
“God knows what happened,” Shafia said. “I don’t know at all about this.”
Speaking slowly, not once raising her voice, Lacelle asked her suspect about the events of June 20, 2009, just 10 days before the car splashed into the water. As detectives discovered, someone using Hamed’s laptop typed “where to commit a murder” into Google that day—the very same day that Hamed’s cellphone travelled to Grand-Remous, Que., nearly 300 km north of the family’s Montreal home. Three days after that (June 23) the family of 10 embarked on a “vacation” to the same region.
Pressed for an explanation, Shafia said the original plan was to take a summer road trip to Vancouver. But “because that was quite far,” they decided to change course after one night and head to Niagara Falls instead. Shafia said he had no idea his son was in Grand-Remous just days earlier—when his computer was churning out hits for murder scenes—and that his children had a lovely time “playing” near the water while he was “busy preparing barbecue and kebab for them.”
The family caravan, split between a silver Lexus SUV and a black Nissan Sentra, left for the Falls, via Ottawa, on June 24. The nine-hour journey just so happened to include a 40-minute bathroom break at Kingston Mills, the exact same place where, six days later, the Nissan would become a coffin. (Police only know about the stop because Sahar’s phone—in constant text mode with friends back home, including her boyfriend—used a nearby cell tower between 8:36 p.m. and 9:16 p.m.) Shafia never told police about their suspicious pit stop.
“I’m going to suggest to you, sir, that if you wanted police to investigate and know the truth, you would have mentioned that,” Lacelle said.
“Whatever I knew, whatever I remembered, I told the police all of that,” Shafia answered, his words translated from Dari to English.
“If your daughters and Rona had been to that very site before, it might have helped the police to figure out how they got there later,” Lacelle continued. “You didn’t tell the police that you’d been there before because you knew it would be suspicious?”
“No,” Shafia said.
The family arrived in Niagara Falls in the early morning hours of June 25, a Thursday. On Saturday, Hamed’s cellphone was four hours away—back in the Kingston area. Lacelle suggested, without actually saying it, that a reconnaissance mission was under way.
Shafia insisted that he had Hamed’s cellphone that day, and was on his way back to Montreal because the contractor building his new house had suddenly demanded a payment. But he didn’t actually make it all the way home. He claimed that he turned around—near Kingston—because the kids phoned and said they wanted to leave, too. “They told me: ‘Daddy, come, and we will go with you.’ ”
“So you turned right around to go back to get them?” Lacelle asked.
“Yes,” he said.
So after driving 400 km, supposedly to pay an important bill back home, Shafia changed his mind and drove 400 km back to Niagara Falls. Because the children asked him to.
“If the kids told you on the 27th they wanted to leave, and you went straight back, why didn’t you leave on June 28?” Lacelle asked. “Why the 29th?”
His voice growing louder, Shafia babbled on about how it was all up to the kids.
“In any event, sir, you did leave on the 29th,” Lacelle said. “And you decided to start an eight-hour trip back to Montreal at 8 p.m.”
“Yes,” Shafia said. “That was the decision everybody made.”
“I’m going to suggest that you made that journey at that hour because you wanted those kids to be asleep by the time you got to Kingston.”
“It was not my decision,” he repeated. “It was the decision of the whole family.”
“I suggest that you wanted an excuse to stop in Kingston that would not seem suspicious to Rona and your daughters.”
“No, none of those things was crossing my mind.” Everyone was exhausted, he told her again, and everyone wanted to stop.
“So when you were looking for a hotel, why didn’t you take one of the earlier exits for Kingston?” Lacelle asked. “You would have seen signs on the highway that directed you to exits with hotels.”
“No, I didn’t see that.”
“You may have even seen the hotel signs near the exits.”
“I might have been sleeping,” Shafia answered. “I was not driving. It was Hamed who was driving.” And besides, he said, maybe all the hotel lights were switched off.
They ended up taking the exit closest to Kingston Mills Road, just a few minutes from the locks. What happened over the next few hours is for the jury to sort out.
All three suspects have told police various versions of the same story: Yahya was behind the wheel of the Nissan, driving all four of the eventual victims, while Shafia was in the Lexus with Hamed and the other surviving children. Yahya was so tired and sick and dizzy that she pulled over—somewhere—while the Lexus went looking for a motel. When they found one, the Nissan joined them in the parking lot and everyone went to bed. A few minutes later, Zainab knocked on her mom’s door and asked for the keys, presumably to get some clothes out of the Sentra. The next morning, she and the others were nowhere to be found.
What the trio has never been clear on is where Yahya actually parked the Nissan while Shafia and Hamed went looking for the motel. It was either on a “road” or the “highway” or somewhere “not far.”
“I will suggest they were stopped in the parking lot of the Locks,” Lacelle said.
“I told you, I don’t know specifically.”
“You didn’t say the spot because you didn’t want police to know that you stopped in the very place they found your daughters.”
“No,” Shafia said.
“Tooba came to the motel with you and Hamed after you killed your family members,” Lacelle pressed.
“Never, respected lady, would we allow ourselves to do that. Tooba is a mom. If Hamed hurt one of his sisters she would be the first to complain.”
The next day, investigators combing the scene found pieces of Lexus headlight, allegedly shattered while ramming the Sentra into the water. That same morning, Hamed was back in Montreal, dialing 911 to report a single car crash that he has since admitted was staged. (When confronted by detectives, Hamed said he left the rest of the family at the motel that night because he had “business” back home.)
The Nissan had five seats; the Lexus fits eight. “Why would you let Hamed take the Lexus when nine of your family members were at a hotel in the middle of nowhere?”
“Maybe Hamed liked to drive the Lexus,” Shafia answered.
“I’m going to suggest to you that you let Hamed take the Lexus because it was damaged when you killed your family members and you needed him to cover it up.”
“No,” Shafia said.
When Shafia’s son took the stand, his token response was even more defiant: “Absolutely not.” Now 18 and living in someone else’s house, the anonymous brother praised his mom and dad and criticized the police (and the press) for getting the facts so wrong. “My parents wouldn’t do this,” he said. “I lived with them for 16 years. I grew up with them, and I know what they are capable of and what they aren’t capable of. It was an accident.”
Despite what so many others have said while sitting in the same chair, Shafia’s son insisted that he lived in the perfect home: his father never hit him (except once, but “not hard”), the girls were “joyful” and free, and all those complaints to police and child welfare authorities were fabrications meant to win sympathy from their teachers. Sahar swallowing a handful of pills? “I don’t remember anything like that.” Geeti’s demands to be placed in foster care? “For attention, popularity, stuff like that.” Rona’s diary, which described the “torture” that was her life? “She used to care a lot about living.”
As for Zainab, the witness firmly toed the family line: she was the rebel of the house, in love with a “drunk” and prone to stealing her parents’ car keys, even though she didn’t have a licence. Most important to the defence, the younger brother also placed Zainab at the Kingston motel that night—contrary to the Crown’s theory that she and the others were already dead by check-in. (He said she woke him up and asked to borrow his cellphone).
And that damning Google search? The one about “where to commit a murder”? Little brother said that was probably him, too. For reasons that aren’t exactly clear, he said he was contemplating killing himself back in June 2009 and was researching ways to do it. “I wasn’t familiar with the word suicide or suicidal, and I thought murder was the same thing,” he told the jury. “After the deaths of my sisters and Rona, rest in peace, I became more familiar with the term because people told me it might have been a suicide attempt.”
Some might say the same thing about allowing Shafia and his unnamed son to take the stand.