After the detention, a betrayal

Jailed after 9/11, he’s suing the U.S. government. But he’s left victims too.

After the detention, a betrayal

Eight days after the World Trade Center crumbled from the New York skyline, a team of federal agents paid a visit to a small taxi-driving school in Manhattan. With smoke still billowing from the ruins of Ground Zero, the officers were searching for one specific student: a Canadian citizen named Shakir Baloch.

The FBI was anxious to know how the Toronto man, originally from Pakistan, entered the United States. They peppered him with pointed questions. Is your visa valid? Are you a devout Muslim? Do you recognize any of the men who hijacked those airplanes? Still suspicious after a four-hour interrogation, the agents escorted Baloch to a detention centre downtown. He spent that night—and the next seven months—behind bars. “I call it my death valley,” he says now, sitting in a crowded Scarborough coffee shop. “They were threatening to arrest my family and revoke my Canadian citizenship. I was very afraid.”

One person understood exactly what Baloch was going through: Akhil Sachdeva, another Canadian arrested by American authorities in those chilling days after 9/11. Like Baloch, he was living illegally in the U.S. when the towers fell, and quickly found himself swept up in a massive anti-terror dragnet.

They met for the first time in April 2002. Baloch, eventually cleared of any terrorist ties, had just been transferred to New Jersey’s Passaic County Jail, the last stop before his deportation to Canada. Sachdeva—a Hindu originally from India—had been locked away for three months already. “He was a smiling face,” Baloch recalls. “And we were both from Canada.” They played poker together, reminisced about life in Toronto, and promised to meet on the other side as soon as they were free. Two weeks later, when Baloch was told he was finally going home, he made sure to give Sachdeva his phone number.

Back in Ontario, their friendship blossomed. Along with Tim Hortons coffees and the odd trip to the casino, both men joined a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government, alleging that hundreds of innocent foreigners were wrongfully imprisoned because of their race or religion, and nothing more. The case is pending, but the U.S. Supreme Court heard a similar complaint in December, and the judgment, expected later this year, will have major implications for Baloch and Sachdeva. The men who became such close friends under such frightening circumstances will soon find out if they have the legal right to sue senior White House officials.

One thing, however, is already certain. Whenever that ruling is released, Baloch and Sachdeva will not be flipping through it together. Even if it’s favourable, there won’t be any celebratory toasts or triumphant phone calls. In fact, Baloch has no idea how to reach his old pal anymore. Like so many others who were duped before him, he recently discovered—at a cost of $64,000—who Sachdeva really is: a conniving, sweet-talking fraudster accused of bilking friends and associates out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to feed his high-stakes gambling habit.

According to court records and police files, Akhil Sachdeva—a man once portrayed as the quintessential victim in both the New York Times and the Toronto Star—has left behind his own trail of victims since returning to Canada in 2002. Blessed with an innocent grin and the gift of gab, the 36-year-old convicted fraudster has passed himself off as everything from a high-rolling investor to a gravely ill cancer patient—anything to get inside someone’s wallet. In Baloch’s case, Sachdeva conned his friend into buying a travel agency that wasn’t his and wasn’t for sale. Baloch wrote him two cheques and waited for the paperwork. It never arrived. “I trusted him blindly,” he says. “I thought we had such a horrible time together that he wouldn’t think for a second to cheat me.”

It’s little consolation, but Baloch, now 47, got off relatively easy. Bankruptcy records reveal that Sachdeva owes a staggering amount of money to financial institutions, credit card companies, and at least three other people who, like Baloch, believed he was an honest man. One ex-girlfriend, Radha Bakshi, claims in court documents that he cheated her out of a whopping $915,000, which he promptly squandered at the blackjack table. “It’s outrageous,” says her lawyer, Conor O’Hare. “He is such a con artist. There is no remorse, no compassion, no empathy. And he’s made himself out to be the victim? Poor him.”

Today, Sachdeva is nowhere to be found. His cellphone is turned off, he isn’t returning e-mails, and his lawyer, Bruce A. Simpson, declined to comment when contacted by Maclean’s. As recently as October, Sachdeva claimed he was living with an acquaintance in London, Ont. But when reached last week, the woman, who asked that her name not be published, said he hasn’t lived there in more than a year. She also had no idea her former tenant filed for bankruptcy. “Honestly, I’m on the verge of crying,” she said. “He owes me money.” How much, exactly? “I don’t want to talk about that. But it’s quite a bit.”

In his portion of the American lawsuit, Sachdeva claims he was “threatened by menacing dogs,” assaulted by an inmate, and barred from contacting the Canadian consulate during his stint at Passaic (in 2006, the Times went so far as to compare the jail to Abu Ghraib). But now that his crooked past is exposed, it’s hard to imagine that a U.S. jury would believe a single word he says. It’s equally difficult to imagine how a man with such a dubious history—including a criminal record in the United States—managed to immigrate to Canada in the first place.

Those details may never be disclosed; for privacy reasons, immigration officials never discuss individual cases, so it’s impossible to even verify Sachdeva’s claim that he became a citizen in 2003. But this much is known: in July 1998, while living in the U.S. on an expired visitor’s visa, Sachdeva was arrested at a storefront in Queens and charged with possession of a forgery device. He was allegedly sewing fake Tommy Hilfiger labels on “otherwise ordinary blue jeans.” A week later, he moved to Canada as a landed immigrant.

For a while, Sachdeva managed to stay one step ahead of the system. In November 1999, while living in Brampton, he married a woman who just so happened to receive her U.S. green card two months earlier. She applied to sponsor her new husband, but when her request was denied a year later, the couple split. In fact, Sachdeva insists he was in New York to finalize that divorce when the FBI took him into custody. (He also claims that he and his ex-wife owned the Long Island gas station where he was working, but he’s never produced any documents to prove it.)

Not long after being flown back to Canada, he met Radha Bakshi online. According to a statement of claim filed three years later by Radha and her father, Joe, Sachdeva pretended to be an investment adviser at Merrill Lynch and convinced them to hand over more than $1 million. In October 2005, the claim alleges, Sachdeva even persuaded Joe to give him a $150,000 loan “for a few hours.” It was never repaid. At another point, Sachdeva told them he was in Birmingham, England, undergoing special cancer treatments; banking records prove he was actually in Ontario at the time. (In his statement of defence, Sachdeva said the gambling was all Radha’s idea. “She told me to go there and play for her as her luck was not with her,” he wrote.)

Sachdeva met his next pushover in 2006. He assured Mahamud Husein that he was a savvy investor with a history of hefty returns, and by the time Husein realized the truth, he was already in the hole more than $227,000. Sachdeva was later arrested, convicted of fraud, and ordered to pay a restitution of $187,843—in monthly instalments of $250.

Baloch was next. Just as he and his friend were about to provide sworn depositions for their U.S. lawsuit, Sachdeva pitched him the travel agency idea. As soon as he cashed Baloch’s cheques, he disappeared.

Five months ago, Sachdeva did surface briefly for a one-day hearing in Toronto. Now officially bankrupt, he was asking the court to discharge his debts and grant him a fresh start. Among other things, he brought along a letter from his mental health counsellor that confirmed his “pathological” gambling addiction and blamed it on “an inability to cope” with that “traumatic time” in U.S custody. On the witness stand, however, Sachdeva continued to skirt the truth. He suggested that Baloch gave him $64,000 to gamble on his behalf, not to buy a travel agency. Scott Nettie, the bankruptcy registrar, didn’t buy his story. “Surely such an arrangement could not have been on account of [Sachdeva’s] great success as a gambler, since he had none.” His discharge application was denied.

Shakir Baloch went to the courthouse that morning. It was the first time he laid eyes on his former jailmate in almost two years, and during a recess, he confronted him in the hallway. “I said: ‘Why did you do this to me? I would never do that to some person I was in death valley with.’ ” Baloch says his old friend seemed genuinely remorseful. He apologized repeatedly, pinned the whole thing on his gambling problem, and vowed to reimburse the cash, once and for all. For a few weeks, at least, Baloch even believed him. “I became greedy a little bit, too,” he admits. “I just wanted to be optimistic that maybe I would get some of it.”

Four months later, he still hasn’t heard from Sachdeva. “I miss him as a friend,” he says. “But at the same time, I feel very sorry and very sad for what he did to me.”