Atif Rafay’s entire family had been killed while he was out with his friend, Sebastian Burns. The two return, discover the bodies and report the crime. But they do not display the behaviour typical of the victims in such situations, which makes the investigators suspect them so strongly that they ignore all other leads and possibilities. A legally dubious investigative tool is employed to obtain confessions. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the tale of a conviction despite well-founded doubts.
In the early hours of July 13, 1994, at 2:01 a.m., the Bellevue Police Department received a frenetic call reporting a “break-in” and the death of the parents of the caller’s friend in the Somerset area of Bellevue, Washington. The caller was one Sebatian Burns, who was reporting the murder of his friend, Atif Rafay’s parents. A detective was rushed to the scene of the murder at 2:30 a.m. to initiate the investigation into the tragedy.
Atif’s sister, Basma Rafay, was also badly injured but was alive when the call was made. She was rushed to the hospital by the police, but succumbed to her injuries at the hospital in the morning.
The detective noted that the house had lots of boxes lying around, which was because the family had recently moved to Bellevue from North Vancouver, Canada, and they were in the process of settling in. Atif Rafay was attending the Cornell University, and Sebastian Burns was visiting him from Vancouver, where the two had spent most of their early life as friends. The two had been at the house for the whole of Sebastian’s stay there and had gone out the first time that night when the tragedy struck.
Since the duo could not stay at the house, which was now a crime scene and the site of an active investigation, the police put them in a motel, where they stayed for three days and were questioned on and off by the investigating detectives. The police found the behaviour of the two a little strange, which is what made them look into Sebastian and Atif a little closely. They found that Atif seemed a bit too detached from the tragedy for anybody whose entire family had been completely wiped out. When he was asked if he knew that his sister was alive when they made the call to the police, he replied in the affirmative, and when he was asked why he did not check on her, he said that it was because he could not do anything about it. The response did not sound like the response from a concerned brother. He also made a mention of his missing VCR and Walkman, which was also strange for someone who had just seen the dead bodies of his parents and whose sister was so seriously wounded.
Sebastian, on the other hand, was not being very cooperative with the same questions being asked to him over and over again. He was insistent that he told all that he knew to the policemen who had talked to him at the first instance and he had nothing further to add to his account.
According to them, they had left the house at around 8:30 p.m. and had gone to a restaurant called ‘The Keg’ and from there they went to watch ‘The Lion King’ at a theatre, after which they went to Seattle to an all-night diner, where they ate, and then visited ‘The Wuthering Wall’, a nightclub in Seattle. As part of their investigation, the police checked their alibis, and found them rock solid. Their presence at each place was confirmed by the people. The waitress at ‘The Keg remembered them because they had ordered wine and salad. At the all-night diner, the waitress could clearly remember the two because they had only ordered a coke and some fries and had left her a tip of $10. At ‘The Wuthering Wall’, the doorman had disallowed them from entering at 1:40 a.m. because it was almost closing time for the club.
The investigators, however, thought that the alibis were that unassailable only because they had been carefully crafted to cover up the crime. They were of the view that the duo ordered wine because that would require them to produce identification, and it would relatively be easy to remember that two young boys from Canada ordered liquor. Similarly, the hefty tip for a small order was memorable, and so was knocking the doors of a nightclub at the time of closing. Together with the strange behaviour of the two, the alibis seemed more like the proof of their guilt than innocence. However, it was still a theory largely based on circumstantial evidence, and was wholly insufficient for the police to file charges against the two.
There were lots of boxes in the house because the family had recently moved to the house, and many of these boxes had been toppled over and it looked like they had been gone through in search of something. However, on closer scrutiny, the investigators realized that they had not been gone through at all. They had simply been scattered around as though someone wanted to create the impression that they had been searched for something. This made the investigators suspicious of the circumstances in which the bodies had been found. It appeared to them that the crime scene had been staged on purpose.
The needle of suspicion was pointing to Atif and Sebastian. However, they still did not have any concrete proof of their involvement. So, the police did not have enough to detain the duo. After spending three days in the motel, the two left for Vancouver. However, the media presented their leaving for Vancouver as fleeing, which made it look like they were guilty of something and had something to hide whereas the police did not really have much in terms of hard evidence against them. All they had was strange behaviour of the two young boys and a crime scene that looked like it had been manipulated on purpose. Against such a weak set of circumstantial evidence, the duo had solid alibis from several independent witnesses. But the press coverage made them look like criminal masterminds. Nobody thought that the very least that criminal masterminds would do is keep their post-crime behaviour typical so as to not cause suspicion. Which “criminal mastermind” behaves like he or she has committed a crime immediately after the crime?
The detectives found that in 1993 Sebastian Burns had played a killer in a high school play called The Rope, which was about two college students committing a ‘perfect murder’. The play, written by Patrick Hamilton in 1929, was said to be based on the real-life murder of a 14-year-old Bobby Franks committed in 1924 by two students at the University of Chicago – Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Based on the play, legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock made a film by the same title in 1984.
The detectives watched the film and were further convinced that Atif and Sebastian had acted like Leopold and Loeb, the murderous duo in The Rope except the police did not have any real evidence to connect the two with the Rafay murders.
The other thing that made the investigators further suspicious was the liking that Sebastian and Atif had for the philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, particularly Nietzsche’s disregard for societal conventions. To the minds of the investigators, Sebastian and Atif were deeply impressed by the Nietzsche’s rejection of conventions, and looked upon themselves as superior to other human beings and capable of achieving what most people could not, including getting away with murder. Therefore, like Leopold and Loeb, they had planned to commit a perfect murder and get away with it. However, this was still a theory with little evidence to back it up.
The motive, according to the police, was money, principally from the insurance policies the deceased had in their names. There were three insurance policies, out of which the one by an American company was immediately liquidated in favour of Atif despite objections raised by the police because the police had not charged Atif with murder and the insurance company concerned did not see it fit to withhold the payment solely on suspicion.
Once they had the money, they chose to buy a Mustang convertible and went on a road trip, and were pretty liberal with spending the money. This raised the suspicion of the police because it was not the kind of behaviour one would expect of someone who was grieving the death of his or her entire family, especially when the family had been brutally murdered.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the equivalent of America’s federal investigation agency, the FBI, opened their own investigation into the murder of Rafay family because the prime suspects of the crime were Canadian citizens. Sebastian and Atif were living with their high school friend, Jimmy Miyoshi, at that point of time. They seemed to be having a good time partying through the nights with the music turned up high. The RCMP thought that the conventional methods of interrogation were not going to produce results because the suspects were intelligent young men. So, they decided to resort to unconventional methods. They installed microphones in Miyoshi’s house to listen in. However, that did not throw up anything incriminating, which led the RCMP to up their game and employ what is referred to as ‘Mr. Big’ technique, also called the ‘Canadian technique’, which is a covert investigative procedure involving undercover investigators posing as members of an elite criminal organization in order to elicit confessions from the suspects.
The technique is called ‘Mr. Big technique’ because the undercover agents would, at some point, tell the suspect that they have come to know of the crime the suspect has committed, and they would like to know the truth about the crime before the meeting with the head of the criminal organization – Mr. Big – could be arranged. The suspect is likely to spill out the details of the crime committed in the past, which helps the investigators gather conclusive evidence against the suspect. The procedure takes a lot of time to unfold because an elaborate setup has to be put in place for it to look and feel convincing to the suspect. Despite the advantages, the technique is controversial and has been a subject-matter of several judicial pronouncements by the superior courts, including the Supreme Court, in Canada.
Based on the information that the RCMP got from the microphones installed, they sent two of their undercover operatives, Gary and Al, assisted by other personnel in the background to create a convincing situation and set up to make Gary’s encounter with Sebastian Burns look like a chance event. Gary parks his car next to Burns’ car and pretends like he had locked his keys inside the car and seeks Burns’ assistance. Gary requests Burns to give him a ride, for which he proposes to pay $100 to Burns for his time and effort. Burns helps Gary out, after which Gary insists on their having a drink together at a nearby bar. They enter the bar and a friendly exchange between the two follows.
One conversation follows the other, and the two build a kind of friendship. Over a period of four months or so, during which period Gary introduces Al, the other undercover operative, to Burns, and Al and Gary play out several different scenarios designed to make Burns believe that the two were part of a big and mean criminal organization. Gary and Al were seasoned operatives who knew how to work the magic of the Mr. Big technique quite well. They played the drama so convincingly that Burns could not imagine in his wildest dreams that the two were undercover police officers. There were several occasions when such scenarios were acted out by the undercover police officers in covert association with Gary and Al which impressed upon Burns that violence was a perfectly acceptable means to attain an objective. Guns were described a “warm” implying that they had been freshly used. Once, Gary took Burns to a building and made him wait outside while he took care of business inside. He emerged from the building with his knuckles scraped giving the impression that he had beaten someone up pretty badly although the truth was that he had just punched a carpet hard enough to make his knuckles look like roughed. Gradually, they made Burns believe that they were the kind of people who could easily go to the extent of killing somebody to get things done their way.
The RCMP preferred Burns over Rafay because they knew Burns could be more easily manipulated than Rafay. So, they went about creating this elaborate web of lies around Burns in order to make him confess to having teamed up with his friend, Atif Rafay, to kill the Rafay family. Burns’ circumstances made him even more vulnerable because his life stood disrupted and people suspected him to be a killer. The situation was quite stressful for him. And suddenly a few members of a criminal organization turn up and start taking interest in him. In a situation where he could not easily get a job, a suggestion by his new friends that he could be part of a criminal organization did not sound like a bad proposition. Burns was made to handle of lot of money making him believe that a lot of money changed hands in the murky business his new companions were involved in. But before he could join the criminal enterprise, he had to come clean and tell them all about his dark past. They told him that the head of the criminal organization was willing to meet him and give the two of them a chance to be a part of his organization, but the condition was that they lay bare the truth about the Rafay murders. There is a subtle indication that in telling the tale of their involvements in the murders, the two would be revealing their natural talent qualifying them to be the members of a dreaded criminal organization. Criminals, after all, work with those who have like criminal tendencies.
There was every reason for Atif and Sebastian to admit to the murders, had they committed them. However, Sebastian did not readily admit to any wrongdoing at all. But his new friends did not want to believe that. They told him that they did not believe him because it could not be true that the two of them were completely innocent. They made it plain to Sebastian that they believed he and Atif had actually killed the Rafay family, and they also impressed upon Sebastian that they would not want them to join their organization if he did not reveal the complete truth about the murders to them.
While the RCMP was pressing on with the Mr. Big technique assuming that Atif and Sebastian were the killers of the Rafay family, there were other leads that could be pursued but were not paid as much attention to perhaps because the investigators were convinced that it was these young boys who had committed the crime. It seems their conviction was primarily founded upon the odd behaviour displayed by Sebastian and Atif immediately after the murder of Atif’s entire family.
…to be continued