Mohammad Shafia’s SUV pushed another car he owned into a shallow canal at an isolated, unlit location more than two years ago, a collision-reconstruction expert told a murder trial Wednesday. Three of the Montreal businessman’s daughters and his first wife were found dead inside the submerged car. Shafia, 58, his wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their son, Hamed, 20, are each charged with four counts of first-degree murder. They pleaded not guilty.
Constable Chris Prent testified that the silver Lexus SUV rammed the Nissan Sentra from behind as the compact car dangled over a stone precipice, early on the morning of June 30, 2009, at Kingston Mills, a tiny hamlet on the Rideau Canal.
“There was certain damage present on the Nissan and there was certain damage present on the Lexus SUV that coincide and it’s my opinion that the Lexus was used to push the Nissan over the edge of the canal into the water,” Prent testified.
The accused mother and father said publicly they believed their eldest daughter took the Sentra for a joyride, without their permission, and crashed it into the canal. The family, originally from Afghanistan, had stopped in Kingston for an overnight rest while driving home to Montreal from Niagara Falls.
The Sentra was found by Parks Canada staff submerged in about three metres of water, next to the large wood door of a lock. Inside were the bodies of sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti Shafia, 13, along with Rona Amir Mohammad, 52. Autopsies showed they drowned, though the time and place they drowned could not be pinpointed.
Prent said many bits of “unusual” evidence suggested the Sentra did not go into the water on its own. The vehicle’s ignition was off, the headlights were off, the transmission was in first gear and all of the four occupants were not wearing seatbelts when they were found.
Also, the two front bucket seats were reclined at angles of roughly 45 degrees, an “unnatural” position for a driver, he said.
Prent, who has analyzed more than 150 collisions, focused on the smashed frontleft corner of the Lexus and the damaged left-rear corner of the Sentra. The Sentra’s tail light was broken and there was a distinct horizontal line on its bumper, Prent said.
Underneath the Sentra, at a point roughly beginning at the car’s centre of gravity, undercoating was peeled back. The Ontario Provincial Police officer also noted damage to the bottom of the driver’s door that appeared to coincide with damage to a wood stair near the edge where the car plunged into the water.
Prent said he believes the car was taken to the stone lip of the canal and became snagged on the step, with the front-left wheel hanging in air over the water.
“As the vehicle was hanging over the edge of the canal – and the Lexus SUV applied force to the left-rear corner, the vehicle started to rotate to free it from the step,” he said.
The Sentra would have tilted right and then slid over the stone edge, he said, creating a motion that would explain the way the undercoating was peeled back and also explaining why the vehicle ended up seemingly backwards in the water. Because there was no damage to nearby canal machinery, he concluded the vehicle went over very slowly.
Prent also studied evidence from a collision involving the Lexus that Hamed Shafia reported around 8 a.m. in Montreal on June 30. He called police to say he had struck a guardrail in a parking lot.
“This was an attempt to cover up or get rid of any evidence that may have been consistent with damage caused at Kingston Mills locks,” Prent testified. He concluded that the Lexus was deliberately driven into the guardrail twice. The next day, police found the Lexus in the garage of the Shafia home in St. Léonard.
Defence lawyers have not yet had the chance to question Prent.
Thursday morning, jurors will be taken by bus to Kingston Mills, so they can understand the geography of the area where the car was found. It is a rare practice used in criminal trials called “taking a view.”
“You’re going to be free to move around, look around, look at some of the things you’ve heard about in court,” Justice Robert Maranger told the jurors Wednesday.
The Parks Canada site features four locks that can lift boats 15 metres up from the level of Lake Ontario into the canal system. The sunken Sentra was found just north of the northernmost of the four locks.
The judge barred journalists from taking pictures of him, the lawyers, jurors or accused at the site. The accused mother said she would not take part in the trip. Mohammad and Hamed Shafia will be taken in an unmarked van and kept inside the vehicle but in a position so that they can see what is taking place.
(This story appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)