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.
Tooba Mohammad Yahya wants the jury to know the truth: she’s a liar. A very, very big one. But not anymore. All those “lies” she blurted out 2½ years ago—especially that zinger about being at the water’s edge with her husband and son when half the family drowned to death—were the words of a desperate woman trying to escape the “clutches” of a police interrogator. She is being honest now, and she wants the world to finally know what happened that night. Except, of course, those crucial few details that she was too nauseous or feverish or sleepy to remember.
“Yes, I was intentionally lying,” Tooba admitted, when asked about that epic interrogation on the night of her arrest. “I was under a lot of pressure when I told him whatever I told him. It was all lies.”
Crown prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis, whose unenviable job is to keep track of all those lies, asked Tooba to describe her current pressure level. “This is your trial,” he said Thursday, her fourth day (and counting) on the witness stand. “Is the pressure the same as it was then?”
“Yes, the pressure was the same,” she answered. “But the date of the pressure differs. When you’re under sleeplessness and you lose your children and your son is handcuffed in front of you, the pressure differs. The time differs.”
“The pressure is not causing you to tell a lie here today, is it?” Laarhuis asked.
“No,” she said.
Three of Tooba’s daughters—Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13—were discovered at the bottom of the Rideau Canal on June 30, 2009, floating inside a sunken Nissan Sentra that also contained the lifeless body of 52-year-old Rona Amir Mohammad, their supposed “auntie” but in fact their dad’s other wife in a secretly polygamous (and very wealthy) Afghan clan. Prosecutors say that what was staged to look like a boneheaded car accident was actually a mass execution orchestrated by the victims’ closest relatives: Mohammad Shafia, father and husband; Tooba, mother and fellow wife; and Hamed, brother and stepson. All three have pleaded not guilty to four counts each of first-degree murder.
The Crown contends that it was a crime of “honour,” motivated by Shafia’s rage over his daughters’ sexy outfits and secret boyfriends. The alleged murder weapon was his silver Lexus SUV, used to ram the Sentra over the lip of the Kingston Mills Locks and into the murky water below. Investigators who scoured the scene the next morning found shattered bits of Lexus headlight—and the cops who bugged Shafia’s house three weeks later found a very angry father. “Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows,” he barked, “nothing is more dear to me than my honour.”
The family of ten, new immigrants to Canada, were driving home from a Niagara Falls vacation when they stopped at a Kingston, Ont., motel that fateful night. The accused insist that Zainab asked for the keys to the Nissan to grab some clothes from the trunk, only to embark on a late-night joyride (with Rona, Sahar, and Geeti) that ended in tragedy. Prosecutors, of course, say that Zainab never asked for the keys—because she and the others were already underwater, the Nissan never getting anywhere near the motel.
In the witness box, Tooba told Laarhuis that she was coughing and coping with a nasty fever as the caravan of two cars barreled down Highway 401. At one point, she said, she switched spots with Shafia (he went behind the wheel of the Nissan; she took a nap in the front seat of the Lexus, with Hamed driving). Then, at location unknown, she and Shafia swapped again, putting her back in control of the Nissan as it pulled off the exit toward the motel. Again and again, Laarhuis pressed Tooba to remember where those two stops occurred. She couldn’t. “I’m putting to you that it has nothing to do with whether or not you can recall,” he said. “You can recall, and you’re choosing not to tell us.”
“Indeed, that is not the case,” Tooba answered, rambling on some more about the “pressure” she was under after her arrest. But when Laarhuis pointed out the obvious—If you can’t remember where you stopped, then it could have been the Kingston Mills Locks—Tooba suddenly remembered some details. “No sir,” she said. “It was on the side of the road, on the main street.”
At times, Laarhuis’s questions were predicated on so many different lies that, truth be told, it was difficult to keep them straight. For example:
The Shafias had been to the Kingston Mills Locks numerous times before: twice during a family road trip the previous summer (including a full-blown picnic) and once on that journey toward Niagara Falls, just five days before the women died. On July 18, a little more than two weeks after the “accident,” police invited father, mother and son back to the scene to brief them on the progress of the investigation—and to plant a wiretap in their minivan. The cops told the trio that they had found a camera near the locks (yet another lie) and then listened to their reaction as they drove back to Montreal.
“There was no camera over there,” Tooba said, the recorders whirling. “I looked around, there wasn’t any. If, God forbid, God forbid, there was one in that little house, all three of us have come, no?” She later added: “They’re just lying, they’re trying to sound us out.”
During their testimony, both Shafia and Tooba said they weren’t worried about being captured on tape the night the girls died—but rather on those other occasions they visited. Why? Because they failed to tell police they had visited the locks before, and were concerned about being cast as liars.
Then why, Laarhuis asked Tooba, did you fail to mention that concern after your arrest, when RCMP Inspector Shahin Mehdizadeh showed you a photo of the locks and specifically asked if you had been there before? “That was just a meaningless thing for me,” she said. “I didn’t see that as a criminal act. I was under a lot of pressure. I was not in a position to say everything to him, bit by bit.” Again, Laarhuis asked why she lied. “I was not able to properly recognize that spot in the condition I was in,” she answered. “A picture differs a lot from a place you see with your own eyes.” Finished her explanation, Tooba took a drink of water and glanced at the jury.
“You testified yesterday that the reason you started to tell lies was that you wanted to get Hamed free, you were worried he was going to be tortured in jail,” Laarhuis said.
“I knew that I was not there and I didn’t know anything,” she answered. “But because he put me under pressure, I didn’t know what was going on and I was afraid, and I made up that story.”
“You knew very well what you were saying to him,” the prosecutor shot back. “And you were very careful about what you were saying to him.”
“Plan A,” Laarhuis said, was to stick with the “blame Zainab” story. And when that fell apart, shift to Plan B: pin it all on Shafia. In fact, it was Tooba—not the cop conducting the interrogation—who first mentioned, after being shown the broken headlight, that the Lexus nudged the Nissan. (“The important thing is to specify the person,” she told Insp. Mehdizadeh. “Who was that person who hit it with the other car, pushed it into the water?”)
“This concept, that the Lexus pushed the Nissan into the water, comes out of your mouth first,” Laarhuis said. “[The officer] has never suggested at this point that the Lexus pushed it in. All he told you was that the broken headlight pieces are near where the Nissan went in.”
“I don’t remember whether he said that to me or not,” Tooba said.
“It is clear in this interview that you know exactly what has happened at the scene. It is you who first utters the words, who first puts it together that it was the Lexus who pushed the Nissan into the water.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Even if you tell that to a kid, the broken headlights, they will know there was an accident.”
“You accepted that was the truth, and you said the important thing was to find out who was driving the Lexus.”
“That is right,” Tooba replied. “I said: ‘Tell me who was there. Tell me who was driving the Lexus.’ ”
“This is another effort by you to divert the blame from Hamed, who drove the Lexus all that night. That’s why you’re saying it’s important to know who was driving. You didn’t want to tell the officer that it was Hamed who was driving. You are deflecting the blame and trying to blame Shafia.”
“No sir, it wasn’t like that. I asked him: ‘Just tell me.’ ”
“What you want to do is shift it to Shafia.”
“No sir. When he told me your car pieces are found close to the water, I just wanted to know what happened, too.”
Later in her post-arrest interrogation, Tooba told the inspector: “Believe it, Hamed in fact didn’t do this.” When Mehdizadeh asked who was behind the wheel, she answered: “His dad.”
“This isn’t random thoughts coming out of your mind,” Laarhuis said. “This is very sustained and very focused. You want to shift the blame from Hamed to Shafia.”
“No, sir,” she said. “I was afraid, and I said it wasn’t Hamed.”
“This is not about pressure,” he continued. “This is about you saying: ‘It wasn’t Hamed. It wasn’t me. It was Shafia.’ And you’re building up to it right from the very start of your statement. You have already started pointing the finger at Shafia.”
“No sir. He told me that the car glass is there, and that it pushed the car into the water. I told him if you know about this information, then tell me who did this to my daughters.”
Tooba will be back on the stand Friday morning. Still under oath.