01/30/2012 08:52 EST | Updated 01/30/2012 10:37 EST

Shafia Trial: Inside Story Of How Police Caught Killers

KINGSTON, Ont. - When the call first came in on the morning of June 30, 2009, about a car in the locks at Ontario's Kingston Mills, police thought they might have a stolen car on their hands, or maybe even a teenage prank.

They had no way of knowing at that moment that inside the car were the bodies of three sisters and their father's first polygamous wife, the victims of an elaborately planned but clumsily executed "honour killing," the details of which would soon shock people across the country.

Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Yahya, 42, and their son Hamed, 21, were each found guilty Sunday of four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths.

And Kingston police say now it didn't take long for them to become suspicious of the unlikely proposition it was an accident. Once they turned their attention to the Shafias and started digging into their family dynamics, it became clear quite quickly they were dealing with a chilling multiple murder.

The "honour killing" label would come later, as detectives talked to family, friends, boyfriends, social workers and school authorities, and finally as they listened to the rants straight from Shafia's mouth, placing the value of his honour higher than the value of his daughters' lives.

The morning the car was found, Const. Brent White arrived on scene around 10:30. He thought first of pranksters, because he looked at how the lock gate and a wooden beam formed a small triangle, with barely enough clearance for a vehicle to slip through into the water.

"I'm thinking, 'This is pretty difficult to get that vehicle in that narrow spot,'" he testified. "It had to be driven there on purpose."

Then divers went into the canal to scope out the underwater scene and found four bodies floating in the car. They would be identified as sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti Shafia, 13, and Rona Amir Mohammad, 52.

The case became a sudden death investigation that fell under the coroner's authority, and police officers began to collect information at the scene, including pieces of broken head light that would soon become the key to the whole case.

At the same time, a couple and their 18-year-old son showed up at the Kingston police station to report three daughters and a woman missing. The Shafia family from Montreal had been staying in Kingston for the night at a motel and when they woke up they discovered three teenage sisters and a woman described as their father's cousin were missing, along with their car.

They said their eldest daughter Zainab had taken the car keys and must have taken the other three for a joy ride that somehow turned tragic.

While police were taking statements from Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya and their son Hamed — the police had found a Farsi interpreter to help with the parents' interviews — the Nissan Sentra was being hoisted out of the canal, and some of what police found didn't quite fit with the accident scenario.

The car's ignition and lights were off and it was in first gear with the front seats reclined all the way back and the driver's window open. The findings weren't initially indicative of murder, but they were suspicious.

The angle of the seats would make it nearly impossible to drive, and it certainly wouldn't have been comfortable. Even an inexperienced driver would know they should have the gear shift in D for drive. And all indications were the car fell into the water in the middle of the night. Why were the lights off?

As one of the divers pointed out, why did it appear as though nobody tried to escape through the open window?

The only logical possibility, the Crown would later argue at trial, is that the four victims were already dead, drowned first then put in the car to stage an accident.

In the family's initial interviews with police they said they were on their way home from a vacation to Niagara Falls when they stopped in Kingston for the night. The family of 10 had been travelling in two cars: a Nissan Sentra and a Lexus SUV. The police found it odd though, that Shafia, Yahya and Hamed had driven to the police station in a Pontiac minivan.

Hamed said he had decided not to stay at the motel that night with his family and instead drove through the night back home to Montreal so he could get his laptop and conduct some business, meeting with retail tenants at the strip mall his father owned.

Kingston police called colleagues in Montreal to make some initial inquiries about the vehicles and were startled to find that Hamed had reported a collision between the Lexus SUV and a parking barrier in a near-empty lot that very morning in Montreal. He had asked the officer who took his collision report if the damage could be repaired immediately.

Hamed had neglected to mention these details in his interview when he talked about leaving to go to Montreal.

By the end of Day 1, police already had their suspicions, but they still had a long way to go to build a case against the family.

The next day Const. Steve Koopman got consent from Shafia to search the Lexus and pieces of broken Lexus head light, presumably from Hamed's parking lot collision, were taken to be analyzed. Const. Rob Etherington was busy trying to reconstruct the head light with pieces from the Montreal collision, when he discovered what would be the turning point in the investigation.

Tiny pieces of plastic collected at the scene where the Nissan was found were the missing pieces of the Lexus head light. Only, according to the family's story, the Lexus was never at the scene that night.

Investigators on the case were informed July 4 that it was now a homicide investigation.

The theory eventually presented by the Crown in court was that the Shafias thought the Nissan carrying the bodies of the girls and Rona would go into the canal under its own power in first gear, but that the front-wheel drive car got hung up on the canal ledge.

With the wheels spinning someone reached in through the open window to turn the car off, the Crown said, then the Lexus was used to push the Nissan all the way into the canal, explaining the damage to both the back of the Nissan and the head light of the Lexus.

"In essence it could almost be described as the murder weapon," Koopman says.

The Nissan had been purchased used for $5,000 just one day before the family left on their trip, the police learned.

Police then also began to gather their first clues that it might be an honour-based crime. They talked to relatives scattered all over the world and they kept hearing the same themes — Shafia cares deeply about his honour and he had problems with Zainab and some of the other daughters. They also learned then that Rona was actually one of Shafia's two wives and not a cousin, even though Shafia continued to assert she was a cousin when confronted with their wedding photo. He dismissed it as a birthday celebration.

"Even though the prosecution doesn't have to prove motive, it's always going through our heads, 'Why would they do something like this?'" Koopman says. "When we were in touch with the family members, especially from overseas, we started to understand the bigger picture. We started to understand this might have been done in relation to their honour."

Police received cellphone records on July 14, and were surprised to find that on June 27, right in the middle of their family vacation to Niagara Falls, Hamed's cellphone was pinging off a tower in the Kingston area. Records show he or someone using his phone drove 4 1/2 hours from Niagara Falls to Kingston and back the same day.

It was an odd finding, and Shafia would later testify he took Hamed's cellphone and was driving back to Montreal in the middle of the trip when Sahar called asking him to come back as he happened to be passing through Kingston. So, he said, he turned around and drove back to Niagara.

The Crown says it was both Shafia and Hamed who drove to Kingston that day to do some reconnaissance on the site they had picked for murder.

Some of the most sensational evidence from the trial, which formed the basis for the "honour killing" theory, was collected in the days leading up to the Shafias' arrests.

Police asked the three to come from Montreal so they could pick up some personal items that had been in the motel rooms that could now be released back to them. Police also suggested they go look at the scene with investigators, so they could explain how they thought the car had fallen into the water.

When they got there, police told them they had found a camera at the site, so they were going to analyze it and hope it had captured the car going into the water.

What Shafia, Yahya and Hamed didn't know was that was a lie, a ruse designed to get them talking. What the Shafias also didn't know was that during their visit to Kingston that day the police had bugged their minivan so they could intercept and record their conversations.

The camera trick worked. Shafia and Yahya talked the whole way back to Montreal, apparently quite concerned that if there was a camera it would show they had been there before. Hamed was mostly silent, though he curiously warns his parents only at the end of the long conversations that police could bug their car and secretly record their conversations.

"That night, there was no electricity there," Shafia says. "It was pitch darkness. You remember, Tooba?"

"Yes," she replies.

The family was speaking their native language of Dari, but Kingston police had brought two Farsi-speaking Toronto police officers into the investigation to assist with interpreting the wiretaps. Dari and Farsi are two very closely related dialects, akin to American and British English, court heard.

Over the next few days came angry rants from Shafia, cursing his dead daughters as whores for having boyfriends, and saying, "May the devil (defecate) on their graves." He brought up his concept of honour about half a dozen times.

"Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows...nothing is more dear to me than my honour," Shafia says in one conversation.

"This is my word to you: Be I dead or alive, nothing in the world is above than your honour," he says in another.

The pre-arrest phase culminated in a search warrant executed on July 21, 2009, when the Shafias first learned from the language on the order that they were being investigated for four counts each of first-degree murder. During the search, police found a diary written by Rona in which she alleged beatings and mistreatment from Shafia and Yahya, as well as other items that would prove to be crucial at trial.

One of those items was a laptop used mostly by Hamed. It was seized and, when a thorough analysis was completed many months later, investigators couldn't quite believe some of the searches that had been made.

"Where to commit a murder" was probably the most shocking, Koopman says. Also of note were searches inquiring if a prisoner could retain control over their real estate, searches about Montreal jails, for "facts and documentaries" about murder and a large number of searches and photos viewed for bodies of water.

By that point, police had started talking to school officials, social workers and police to whom the girls had complained about their home life and a picture of the dysfunction in the Shafia household began to emerge.

It was all beginning to add up for Kingston police, especially after they learned from motel manager Robert Miller that even though the Shafias swore everyone in their family of 10 was alive and well at the motel, Hamed and Shafia had checked in for six people.

Shafia, Yahya and Hamed have been in custody since their arrests on July 22, 2009, and will have to spend at least 25 years from that date behind bars before they can apply for full parole.

The investigation didn't finish with the arrests. A tireless team of police led by Staff Sgt. Chris Scott poked into every corner of the Shafias' lives for the past 2 1/2 years to scrutinize every piece of physical evidence in minute detail. After the verdicts were delivered, Scott praised both investigators and prosecutors.

"What that verdict says is that (after) 2 1/2 years of police work and Crown work, if some evil individual decides they're going to undertake such an enterprise, we're going to put (out) all our resources and we're going to do everything we can and justice is going to be served," he said.

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