By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
There are two versions of what happened between the roommates on the night of November 30, 1999. The version that the jury “bought in a heartbeat,” according to San Bernardino deputy district attorney Michael O’Connell, is that after arguing about Chaudhry’s refusal to eat pork, Eganza made a blasphemous remark about the Prophet Muhammad that sent Chaudhry to the kitchen, where he heated up a knife on the stove until it was red-hot and came after Eganza shouting, “Allah akbar” (“God is great”), and slashed him several times in the face and neck, leaving him scarred for life.
Chaudhry faced charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated mayhem. At trial, San Bernardino defense attorney David Call argued that Chaudhry had heated up the knife to cleanse it after the Kenyans had cut pork with it, and that Eganza and Kahuthu jumped him from behind and forced his face onto the stove burner. Call maintained that Chaudhry reached backward with the knife and stabbed Eganza in a defensive motion, out of fear he could be maimed.
The fourth roommate, a Chinese-American student named David Wei, testified that he had sensed trouble and hid in his room before the violence broke out.
Chaudhry was convicted of aggravated mayhem, on December 12, 2000, and sentenced to 19-years-to-life. Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law, human rights and Islamic law at UCLA, who testified on Chaudhry’s behalf, says that questions about whether Chaudhry acted in self-defense were overshadowed by issues of religion that inflamed the jury.
“It seemed the state from the get-go was laboring under the assumption that if you offend Muhammad, a Muslim will automatically declare ‘personal jihad,’” says El Fadl, a prolific author and vocal critic of Muslim extremism. According to the professor, there is no such thing as “personal jihad” in Islamic law or in the Muslim faith. “The prosecutor O’Connell seemed like some kind of redneck,” he says. “He used every opportunity to put religion in the minds of the jury.”
Yet Chaudhry’s defense attorney played right into the prosecutor’s hands, El Fadl says. “David Call is this guy who wears cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and has a huge belt buckle,” he says. “At first I thought he could deal with O’Connell on the same level, but then he would launch into these totally irrelevant speeches about Muslims being a peace-loving people. He should have made appropriate objections and dissected the evidence instead of making speeches with religious overtones.”
Call, a former deputy prosecutor, says the case has “haunted” him. “Chaudhry never should have been put in with two Kenyans who are Christians and who hated his guts,” he says. “Is he a Muslim? Oh my, yes. Is he some extremist? I think he is some frightened young kid who got pushed and shoved by two guys that were bigger than him and he fought back and got carried away.
“I think the CIA should recruit him and send him back to Pakistan to spy on all that extremism and hatred being taught to kids over there.”
Imran’s parents had seen firsthand what kind of atmosphere their youngest son would be tried in, when they visited earlier in the year, El Fadl says. According to the professor, the parents were in a state of shock over what was happening. Yet Imran had remained calm and asserted himself on his brother’s behalf, El Fadl says. “I was impressed by the family,” he says. “They were educated, rational and gentle.”
After watching his brother go to jail, Imran remained in the area, and tried to move on. When his visitor’s visa expired, on April 24, 2001, however, the doctor neglected to apply for a new one. “I was told I would not get an extension,” he says. “So I waited to get my labor certification.”
He still elected not to seek asylum. Yet he had no intention of returning to live in Pakistan. He attributes what he did next to love.
The same month his visa expired, Imran divorced his wife in Pakistan, who is his first cousin and the mother of his two sons. He had met someone else, a woman named Heather McRae. McRae, 32, was raised a Mennonite Brethren Christian in Kelowna, British Columbia. Married once and divorced, she is a graduate of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia with a technical degree from Northern Lights College in aircraft-maintenance engineering. She chose to become an aircraft-maintenance engineer, she says, because her ex-husband said it was a man’s, not a woman’s, job.
Imran met McRae, who has dyed blond hair with brown roots showing and crow’s-feet around her eyes, on a Microsoft Network Islam chat room in January 2001. She was converting to the Muslim faith and recovering from a bout with cancer. She came down from Canada to San Bernardino in March of that year, and the couple went on their first date, she says: a three-day tour of Disneyland, Universal Studios and other tourist attractions.
McRae fell in love with Imran because he was “soft-spoken and intelligent — he gets his point across in conversations,” she says with a Canadian accent. The doctor says he fell in love with her because she is “a real kindhearted person, compassionate, and really understanding.”