He was the good cop. Jurors at the Shafia murder trial heard Friday that one Kingston Police detective was assigned to buddy up to the Montreal family suspected of killing four members, in a bid to ferret out information. Steve Koopman, a young detective with a gentle manner, played his part by feeding the family lies, particularly Hamed Shafia (inset), the youngest of the three people suspected of murder.
“I thought, I’m going to … play the role of an officer where I really wasn’t aware of everything that was happening, that I was still going to presume this as being more of a sudden death investigation and obviously playing a bit ignorant in regards to my knowledge of everything that was happening,” Koopman testified.
But Koopman knew exactly what was going on. He got a phone call on July 3, 2009, from Staff Sgt. Chris Scott, the senior officer in charge of the case, telling him that they were re-classifying it as a homicide, three days after a sunken car with four bodies inside was pulled from a shallow canal.
Koopman was one of the first officers to respond on the morning of June 30, when a submerged Nissan Sentra was found at Kingston Mills, an isolated transit point where a rural road crosses the Rideau Canal.
Sisters Zainab Shafia, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, along with Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, were found dead inside the car.
The parents of the girls, Mohammad Shafia, 58, and Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, told investigators they feared the victims died in a joyride that ended tragically. Rona was Shafia’s first wife, whom he married in his native Afghanistan, though he told police she was his cousin.
The parents said their rebellious oldest daughter had taken the car without permission from the motel where they were staying in Kingston’s east end. The family, driving in two cars, had stopped for a rest during the long drive home to Montreal from a family vacation in Niagara Falls. Koopman developed a rapport with the family. He escorted the apparently grieving parents to the morgue to identify the bodies. He also attended the Montreal funeral on July 5, at a time when police already had concluded that the family’s Lexus SUV had been used to push the Sentra into the canal.
On July 10, police seized the Lexus, fearing critical evidence could be lost. Koopman went to Montreal and asked the family for consent to take the SUV for examination, without telling them that police had secretly obtained a warrant that permitted them to seize and study the vehicle. The father agreed and the vehicle was taken.
Almost immediately, Koopman started getting phone calls, primarily from 18-year-old Hamed Shafia, the family’s oldest son, asking whether the Lexus could be returned to them. Koopman told Hamed, in a July 13 call, that Kingston police identification officers weren’t available to go to Montreal yet to process the vehicle. Koopman lied and said the Lexus was at a Montreal police impound lot.
A few days later, Hamed asked if he could go to the impound lot in Montreal to retrieve the Lexus.
“At that point, obviously that wasn’t true, we had the vehicle here in Kingston,” Koopman testified. “Again, it was a strategy or a ploy on our part.”
Police even offered to pay for a rental car, but the family declined.
Koopman’s testimony also revealed that police pored over phone records in a bid to pinpoint the Shafia family’s movements. He was the officer assigned to collate and examine records, which inventory calls and the location of cell towers used by the phones. The information provides an approximation of a phone’s location when it is turned on and used for calls or texts.
Koopman compiled 7,000 records for four cellphones used by the family into a report of more than 400 pages.
The records revealed that a phone believed used by Hamed was in the Grand-Remous, Que., area on June 20. It is a rugged location along the Gatineau River, more than 250 kilometres northwest of Montreal. When the Shafia family left Montreal on June 23 for a vacation in Niagara Falls, they drove first to Grand-Remous, then south to Ottawa and west along Hwy. 401, according to the phone records.
By the morning of June 25, the phones were in the Niagara region.
Two days later, on June 27, the phone that was listed in Rogers subscriber records as belonging to Hamed, received a call at 8:24 p.m. through a cell tower near Kingston. The records show that the phone had traveled back to the Niagara region by the following evening.
On June 30, the cell phone that police believe was used by Sahar received a text message at 1:36 a.m., through a tower on Station Road, less than a kilometre from Kingston Mills. After that time, all calls to the phone were forwarded to voicemail. Police believe that the Sentra plunged into the canal some time between 1:30 a.m. and 2 a.m.
Shafia, Yahya and Hamed were arrested on July 22, 2009, and each charged with four counts of first-degree murder. They have pleaded not guilty.
In interviews after his arrest, Hamed denied that he was in the Kingston area on June 27. He could not explain the cell phone records.
(this appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)