Before honour, reconnaissance

At the Shafia murder trial, cellphone records reveal some disturbing detours during a family “vacation”
A car is removed from the Kingston Locks in this Shafia trial court photo released recently. A court is hearing that the young man accused of killing his sisters saw them plunge into a canal in a car, but didn’t call for help. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

Michael Friscolanti is covering the honour killing trial for Maclean’s, filing regular reports from the Kingston, Ont. courtroom to 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.