KINGSTON, Ont. – The suspicious deaths of three Montreal sisters and a caregiver found inexplicably in a car submerged in the Rideau Canal took a dramatic turn Thursday as police alleged the four had been murdered by the girls’ parents and brother in a possible “honour killing.”
Kingston police Chief Stephen Tanner said investigators were looking into whether the parents and their 18-year-old son were motivated to kill the girls aged 19, 17 and 13, in a deadly clash of cultures.
The fourth victim was 52-year-old Rona Amir Mohammad. Police for the first time said she was the first wife of the older accused in the case, Mohammad Shafia.
The parents – Shafia and his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya – and their 18-year-old son Hamed Mohammad-Shafia are charged with first-degree murder.
The three accused arrived for a bail hearing in Kingston court Thursday afternoon, with the girls’ parents arriving in separate police cruisers. The son was the last to arrive in an unmarked car, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans. He was taken past media through the back of the courthouse.
The family, originally from Kabul, Afghanistan, spent 15 years in Dubai before moving to Montreal two years ago.
Tanner said the girls were living as “Canadian teenagers.”
“In our Canadian society we value the cultural values of everyone that makes up this great country and some of us have different core beliefs, different family values, different sets of rules, and certainly, these individuals, in particular the three teenagers, were Canadian teenagers who have all the freedom and rights of expression of all Canadians,” Tanner said.
“So whether that was a part of a motive within the family based on one … or more of the girls’ behaviour is open to a little bit of speculation.”
Police had always called the deaths suspicious. No one could explain how the car had dropped into the canal. There were no skid marks indicating it had gone off the edge of the lock. And there were several obstacles that made it next to impossible that the car could accidentally be driven into the water.
The black Nissan was first noticed by a lock worker submerged in three metres of water early in the morning of June 30. Its front end was up against the lock wall as if the vehicle had plunged in backwards.
Three weeks after the car was discovered, investigators Thursday laid out a very different scenario from the one offered to police and the public by the family of the victims.
Shafia had told police the family had stopped overnight at a motel in Kingston after vacationing in Niagara Falls. The family was tired and didn’t want to continue the drive to Montreal until the next day.
The family had driven two cars and had taken two rooms at the motel.
The parents said the eldest daughter, Zainab, had knocked on the door of her parents’ room that night and asked for the car keys to get some clothes she had left inside the vehicle.
The next morning, the parents said the second car was gone and at about noon the father went to Kingston police to say the Nissan along with their three daughters and “aunt” were missing.
After making the report, the parents continued on their way to Montreal, wondering if the other family members had left without them and had made it home first, the father said.
In later interviews with the media, the family suggested that Zainab was a rebellious young girl who had a habit of taking the family car without consent or a licence. In tearful interviews, they speculated that their daughter had taken the car for a joy ride that had turned deadly.
Lead investigator Insp. Brian Begbie said Thursday “this particular allegation was false.”
Begbie said the girl had not driven the car that ended up at the bottom of the canal, and that the investigation had revealed that all three accused had.
Police said the older woman in the car as Shafia’s first wife. He had told police she was his cousin.
“It’s not the first time we have seen a family make public pleas and found later the situation was substantially different,” said Tanner
Police described themselves as “greatly saddened” at the “needless and senseless loss of innocent human lives” and in an unusual request asked everyone in attendance to observe a moment of silence.
“All shared the rights within our great country to live without fear, to enjoy safety and security and to exercise freedom of choice and expression and yet had their lives cut short by members of their own family,” said Tanner, before asking for the silent tribute to the four female victims.
The three accused have also been charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
Tanner said he received an email from someone who was most likely a family member, which suggested a so-called “honour crime” could be a possibility in the case.
“That person is far removed from Canadian soil and from direct knowledge so we have to, and will, investigate that fully in coming weeks,” he said.
An email statement sent to media outlets by those identifying themselves as “close relatives” of Shafia’s first wife said Rona had often said her husband “threatened her regularly” and “that he wanted to kill her.”
The email went on to say Shafia often criticized the influence of western culture on his family, adding that “the daughters were beaten regularly, either by him or his son Hamed, because their behaviour was a disgrace to him in his eyes.”
Rona’s younger sister, Homa Kahoush, interviewed through an interpreter by telephone from her home in Sweden, said she was shocked by what had happened.
Speaking in Persian translated by her son Nawed Amir Mohammed, Kahoush said her sister had been married to Shafia in Kabul in 1980.
The email to media included photographs that it said showed the wedding and engagement of Mohammed and Shafia.
Shafia did not divorce Rona and claimed she was a close family relative as he moved from Afghanistan to Dubai and later to Canada.
Rona used to call her sister frequently to relate the many problems she faced at home, said Nawed.
After 27 years of living with her husband and his second wife, Rona had told her relatives in Europe that she wanted to leave Shafia.
“She was scared of her husband,” said Nawed, translating his mother’s words.
Despite not being their mother, Nawed said Rona was well liked by the children of the family and took good care of Shafia’s daughters.