Four women mysteriously found dead inside a submerged car in a canal in Kingston, Ontario, three weeks ago weren’t victims of a freak accident – they were murdered, police believe. The stunning revelation came yesterday, with arrests in the case. Police will hold a news conference in Kingston today but they likely won’t reveal details that I have learned exclusively, including the allegation by relatives of victim Rona Amir Mohammed that it was an honour killing. The relatives also have told me that Rona Mohammed was the first wife of Mohammed Shafi, the father of the three teenage sisters found dead in the car, and she was not their aunt, as other family members claimed. The photo above, which was sent to Kingston Police, purports to show her marrying Shafi in Kabul, Afghanistan 30 years ago. The full story is here, or read it after the jump.
The Kingston Whig-Standard, July 23, 2009
By Rob Tripp and Paul Schliesmann
Kingston Police have arrested at least three people in connection with the mysterious deaths of four Montreal women found in a submerged car in Kingston Mills June 30.
Police sources confirmed the dramatic development in the case, 22 days after a black Nissan Sentra was found in roughly three metres of water near one of the four locks.
Three teenage sisters were found dead in the car, Zainab Shafi, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, along with a 50-year-old woman, Rona Amir Mohammed.
La Presse newspaper in Montreal said three people who were heading to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport were arrested yesterday morning.
Initially, police said the case was suspicious but that they had not found evidence of foul play.
It’s not clear what charges are being laid, but The Whig-Standard learned that Kingston Police have been investigating, for at least two weeks, the allegation that the deaths were an honour killing.
“We are convinced that this is a crime of honour,” Diba Masoomi told Kingston Police, in an email sent to the police chief’s office roughly two weeks ago.
The newspaper obtained a copy of the email from Masoomi, who lives in Niort, France. She claims she is the sister of Rona Amir Mohammed and she also offered the stunning allegation that the dead woman was the first wife of Mohammed Shafi, the father of the three dead girls. She provided photos that she claims show Shafi and Mohammed at their wedding in Afghanistan 30 years ago. The couple never divorced.
Masoomi said the marriage has been hidden since the family moved to Canada two years ago.
In interviews after the deaths, Shafi and the woman he presented as his only wife, Tooba Mohammed Yhaya, said Rona Mohammed was a cousin.
Ali Shafi, a 15-year-old brother of the dead girls, told the Whig-Standard in an interview July 8 that Rona Mohammed was his aunt.
“For some time, my sister, as well as the Shafi couple’s oldest daughter, Zainab, had been receiving death threats for social, cultural and family reasons,” Masoomi’s email to Kingston Police states.
In an interview through translation, Masoomi, who does not speak English or French, explained that Rona Mohammed has stayed in regular contact with relatives in Europe, and has told them she feared for her life.
“She was really afraid,” Masoomi told the Whig-Standard, through her daughter Elaha Masoomi. “There were death threats.”
Diba Masoomi said that Rona Mohammed married Shafi in Kabul, Afghanistan. When she could not have children, he took a second wife, a practice that is not uncommon in Afghani culture.
Shafi and his second wife had seven children.
Masoomi said her sister remained with the family and raised the children, even when they moved to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, 17 years ago.
The Whig-Standard reached another relative of Rona Mohammed, sister Homa Kahoush, who lives in Sweden. She also does not speak English or French.
In an interview translated by her son, Naveed Mohammed, she also said that Rona Mohammed was Shafi’s first wife, a fact that was hidden by the family in Canada.
Kingston Police have refused to comment on any of the information.
“Nothing will be released until tomorrow,” Const. Mike Menor said, late last night.
Police have scheduled a news conference for 2 p.m. Thursday.
“Police investigators are announcing a change in the status of this ongoing investigation,” police said, in a release.
In interviews four days after the car was found underwater at Kingston Mills, Mohammed Shafi and Tooba Mohammed Yhaya surmised that the car ended up in the water as the result of a joyride.
They said their eldest daughter, Zainab, had taken the car without permission in the past, even though she did not have a licence. She was trying to learn to drive.
“My big daughter, she sometimes wants to try” to drive, Yhaya told the Toronto Star.
The family said they were returning to Montreal from a family trip to Niagara Falls on June 29 when they decided to stop in Kingston because they were fatigued.
They had driven in two cars, a Lexus SUV and the Nissan.
They stopped at a motel for the night at about 1 a.m., they said.
The four women who were later found dead slept together in one of two motel rooms the family rented.
Yhaya said sometime later, Zainab came to her room and asked for the keys to the family’s Nissan so she could get some clothes from the car.
The next morning, when she awoke, the mother said the Nissan was missing along her three daughters and Rona Mohammed. The family could not reach anyone by cellphone. They filed a missing-person report with police and drove on to Montreal, believing the other group had left without them.
Ali Shafi, who was on the trip to Niagara Falls, told the newspaper he could not remember at which motel the family stayed.
A longtime tenant at the Lord Nelson Motel on Hwy. 15, Bob Asselstine, told the Whig-Standard that he recalled seeing a large family, driving in two cars, silver and black, who arrived at the motel one evening a day or two before Canada Day.
He said he believed they arrived around 9 or 9:30 p.m.
The motel’s guest receipts for that night did not show that anyone by the name Shafi stayed at the motel, which is roughly two kilometres from Kingston Mills. It is the first motel visible to a traveller on Highway 401 who turns south onto Hwy. 15.
In the past weeks, Kingston Police have been collecting video surveillance footage from gas bars and other retail operations along the highway.
A Kingston woman, Shirley Gibson-Langille, told the newspaper that she’s certain she saw the four women who were later found in the car at Kingston Mills in the early evening of June 29, walking around the property.
Kingston Police said previously that information was incorrect.
Police were at the Shafi family home in Montreal Tuesday evening for roughly three hours, according to a neighbour.
Mario Carpanzano has been a neighbour since the Shafis moved into the multi-plex directly across from his home on rue Bonnivet.
On Tuesday night, Montreal police officers parked in front of his house at about 6 p.m., accompanied by an unmarked car, he said.
“The police car came and parked in front of my gate. Then another car from Kingston arrived. It was people dressed in suits,” Carpanzano, 65, told the Whig-Standard yesterday.
“It had an Ontario licence plate,” he said when asked how he knew it was Kingston police.
All of the officers went into the Shafi home. He saw camera flashes through the windows. Three hours later, at about 9 or 9:30 p.m., the officers left.
Carpanzano said the family remained at the house, including the father, mother and brother.
“I was on my neighbour’s balcony talking,” he said. “They waved at us and we waved back.”
Later, he noticed members of the Shafi family leave in a van. He went to bed and so didn’t know if or when they returned that evening. When he left his house at 5 a.m. Wednesday, he didn’t notice anything suspicious.
Rue Bonnivet is a tree-lined street in the middle of a predominantly Italian neighbourhood in the east-end Montreal suburb of St. Leonard. All of the houses in the district are four-plexes. The Shafi family rented the middle and lower floors at 8644 Bonnivet.
The homes all have balconies where residents closely watch their neighbours’ comings and goings. Carpanzano said that over the past two years many Moroccan and Algerian families and people of middle eastern origins have been moving into the area.
Since the deaths, Carpanzano said, the father, Mohammed Shafi, “always had his eyes red like a person who was crying.”
He said Rona Amir Mohammed “was presented to us as a cousin of the man.”
aid the family members seemed to be close but he did notice that Rona “was very often alone” when she went for walks.
“They were very private people. It seemed they didn’t have a lot of friends or relatives in Canada or Montreal. They were so close to each other in the family,” he said. “We didn’t notice anything different. The kids, they used to play with her.”
The only turmoil the family displayed, according to Carpanzano, occurred about a month before the deaths at Kingston Mills when the oldest brother told him that his sister, 19-year-old Zainab, had left home suddenly.
“The older brother said, ‘We called the police because my sister, she ran away,’” recounted Carpanzano. “From what we heard it seemed she was going out with somebody the parents didn’t want and she ran away, defying her parents’ authority.”
He said the brother didn’t mention anything about her possibly having married.
“The only thing I know is he said she was seeing a guy but the family did not agree with that. The family didn’t say why,” said Carpanzano.
Kingston Police have described the incident as perplexing from the start, noting that a car would have had to negotiate many obstacles to make it into the water at that spot in Kingston Mills.
There was no damage to any of the lock equipment, tables or other objects around the edge where the car is presumed to have plunged into the water.
The submerged car was first spotted by a lock worker who was preparing to move the first boats through the canal that day just after 8:30 a.m.
The car was resting on its wheels, its front end up against the lock wall, as if the vehicle plunged in backwards.
Police have never released any information about what was learned when autopsies were done on the victims.