The first police constable called to the puzzling discovery of a car submerged in a canal in Kingston, Ontario with four bodies inside immediately suspected it was not an accident. Brent White, the second witness at the murder trial of a Montreal businessman, his wife and son, testified that he believed the car had been deliberately put there. “It’s in the locks where it’s obviously going to be found,” White testified Friday. He did not know what the car contained when he began investigating on the morning of June 30, 2009.
Inside the Nissan Sentra were the bodies of sisters Zainab Shafia, 19, Sahar, 17, Geeti, 13, and Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, who was Mohammad Shafia’s first wife. Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba, 41, and their son Hamed, 20, are accused of murdering the four in an honour killing disguised to look like a freak accident. They have pleaded not guilty.
The family, originally from Afghanistan, came to Canada in 2007 and settled in Montreal. They have said previously that they were returning to Montreal from a vacation in Niagara Falls and stopped at a motel in Kingston. Shafia and Tooba speculated that Zainab took the Sentra without permission and, with the three passengers, crashed it into the canal.
White was on patrol in a cruiser when Parks Canada staff working at the locks spotted the Sentra in about three metres of water in the Rideau Canal at Kingston Mills. He was dispatched to investigate.
“My thinking at the time was, these are kids who just played a prank and it’s a long weekend, ha ha, very funny, they’ve shut down the locks for the long weekend,” White testified. He said Kingston Police get many reports of stolen cars taken for joyrides and abandoned in water.
White acknowledged making several mistakes that day, in part attributing it to his inability to foresee the gravity of the situation.
He drove his police cruiser onto the grassy property immediately adjacent to the canal. He walked the property looking for evidence that might suggest the car’s path to the water and he found two pieces of triangular-shaped, clear plastic. He picked them up and put them back down in the same spot, believing they were unimportant.
“Hindsight’s 20-20,” he told jurors, acknowledging he “would have never touched them” had he realized their significance.
The pieces were later matched by forensic testing to a silver Lexus owned by the Shafia family, along with other similar chunks found in the area. The pieces are crucial to the prosecution theory that the Lexus was used to push the Sentra into the canal when it became wedged on the stone lip at the water’s edge. In the process, the front driver side headlight and bumper of the Lexus was damaged and pieces broke off.
Under cross examination by a defence lawyer, White acknowledged three errors involving distances recorded in his notes and in a statement.
“I probably shouldn’t even have put measurements in my notes, but I did, from my recollection,” he testified.
Jurors also got a glimpse of the kind of sparring matches that are likely during the trial.
Kingston police constable Julia Moore, who photographed and studied the area around the canal, explained where the broken car parts were recovered and where marks were seen on the stone ledge. The findings led police to conclude that the Sentra navigated a series of obstacles before it plunged into the water.
Defence lawyer Patrick McCann pointed out, on an aerial photo, what he said are more direct paths to the water for a car. He concentrated on one spot.
Moore said she had not studied the area and had not taken any measurements there.
“That’s a pretty direct route, is it not?” McCann asked.
“I can’t agree that anything’s a direct route,” Moore replied.
McCann said it appeared to be a direct path in comparison to the “circuitous route” that the police pinpointed.
“I don’t know why you’re bringing that up,” Moore said.
“Well, you don’t need to ask me questions, I’ll ask you questions, if you don’t mind,” McCann retorted.
On the opening day of the trial, prosecutor Laurie Lacelle outlined the Crown’s theory that Mohammad Shafia was angry that his daughters, who were close to his first wife Rona, were becoming Westernized, wearing revealing clothing and consorting with boys, against his wishes. Police found a diary in the Shafia home, Lacelle said, in which Rona documented a life of despair and mistreatment by Shafia and Tooba. An English translation of the diary was released yesterday (fri).
“He married a second time and I was visited with a new catastrophe,” Rona wrote, according to the translation. Shafia took a second wife, a practice legal in Afghanistan, because Rona was infertile. In the diary, Rona describes the growing efforts of Tooba to “separate” her from Shafia and cut her out of the family.
“I said … you can’t kick me out, you are one wife of his,” Rona wrote. “I am another. She said, ‘You are not his wife, you are my servant.’ ”
The trial resumes Monday afternoon.
(this story appeared first in the Montreal Gazette)
Photos released by the court on Friday (click to enlarge):