The veteran police diver who recovered the bodies of three teenage sisters and their stepmother from a sunken car was “perplexed” that he could not determine who was driving the vehicle when it plunged into a shallow canal. “They were all piled on top of each other almost; it was very strange,” Const. Glenn Newell testified Monday at the murder trial of three Montreal residents accused of slaying four other family members in an alleged honour killing.
“I really couldn’t determine which person would have been the driver,” Newell testified.
Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba, 41, (inset) and their son Hamed, 20, have pleaded not guilty. They claimed publicly that the victims died in a joyride that ended in tragedy.
Newell, a 24-year member of the Ontario Provincial Police underwater search and recovery unit, estimated he has pulled more than 250 drowning victims out of lakes and rivers, including 100 bodies pried from submerged vehicles.
Newell said that in most cases he’s able to tell who was driving in a crash in which car occupants drown. When he swam roughly eight feet down to the submerged Nissan Sentra on June 30, 2009, he found a puzzling and grim scene.
“It didn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me, how that would happen,” he said. “I was quite perplexed by it … I was kind of confused as to how the vehicle ended up the way that it did and with the people in the positions that they were in.” The vehicle was in shallow water, its rear end elevated about two feet off the bottom and wedged at one corner against the thick wood door of a lock at Kingston Mills.
Sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, along with Rona Amir Mohammad, were found dead inside the car. Autopsies showed they drowned. Prosecutors allege that the car was pushed into the canal as a staged accident to conceal the killings.
“It would be highly unusual to not be able to determine that there was a person in the driver’s seat,” Newell testified.
The accused mother clutched a tissue tightly to her face and appeared to be sobbing quietly as Newell described what he found.
Newell said the driver’s side window was down fully, yet it did not appear anyone had tried to escape through the sizable opening. He said that at recovery scenes he sometimes finds the body of a driver partly out through an open window, his or her feet stuck in the steering wheel or their body entangled in the seatbelt. None of the victims were wearing seatbelts when Newell found them and there were only a few objects inside the car.
“I would think it would have made it very simple for anybody who could get to that window to get out that window,” Newell testified. The officer was surprised that nothing had floated out of car to the surface.
“There was a teddy bear in the back that … floated up against the rear window; that’s something that’s very buoyant,” he said.
Two of the young victims were in the front seating area.
“In this case, both people that were partially in the front seat, their legs were between the two bucket seats and it didn’t really make a whole lot sense to me how that would happen,” he said.
Newell explained that he videotaped the scene before he removed the bodies of the victims, one at a time.
When the Crown prosecutor announced they would play the video on the large monitors in the courtroom, the accused mother motioned to speak to her lawyer. David Crowe told the judge that she wanted to leave the courtroom.
“This may raise some emotional trauma for my client if the video shows her children’s bodies in the vehicle,” Crowe said. “Your honour has the discretion to excuse her and I’m asking for that.”
A spectator in the body of the court shouted: “No way.”
Mr. Justice Robert Maranger asked Crown lawyer Gerard Laarhuis if he had anything to say.
“She’s entitled to choose not to be present for part of her trial,” Laarhuis said.
“I agree,” Maranger said.
He said the video would be played without Tooba present, beginning Tuesday morning.
(This story appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)