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Sunday, November 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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After 9-year saga, search for justice in Bellevue slayings reaches courtroom

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Three granite grave markers, each framed by graying concrete, lie flush to the ground in a little cemetery west of Snohomish.

The grave in the middle belongs to Tariq Rafay. He is flanked by his wife, Sultana, and daughter, Basma. Buried among other Muslims in the southwest corner of Woodlawn Cemetery, the Rafays have headstones that bear the same Arabic inscription, which translates to read: "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate. To God we belong and to God we return."

Thirty miles south, in Bellevue's Somerset neighborhood, the gray, split-level house the family once shared has since been painted beige. Inside, everything's been remodeled, every surface has been changed, said the woman who lives there now.

Nearly a decade after the Rafays were bludgeoned to death in their home — a crime that frustrated police and unnerved a city that had never before experienced a triple homicide — the Rafays' son and his high-school buddy are preparing to stand trial, accused of killing the family to cash in on inheritance money.

Controversy and delay have marked each twist in the case against Atif Ahmad Rafay, 27, and Glen Sebastian Burns, 28, both Canadian citizens. It has involved an undercover Canadian police operation — replete with high drama and high-tech surveillance — a years-long extradition battle, an international debate on the death penalty, and a jailhouse sex scandal involving Burns and his public defender, Theresa Olson.

Interest in the case remains high, not only because of the brutal nature of the crime but also because the defendants were just 18 at the time and have already spent more than eight years behind bars. There's so much media attention — from national networks, Canadian newspapers and local news outlets — that a partitioned media room has been set up at the back of the vast, ninth-floor courtroom at the King County Courthouse.

After months of lengthy pretrial hearings earlier this year and a four-week search for jurors, prosecutors and defense attorneys were relieved when a jury was sworn in Thursday. The court sent out 3,000 special subpoenas, ultimately choosing 12 jurors and eight alternates — two alternates more than normal. The unusually large pool was necessary because of the publicity surrounding the case and the expected difficulty in finding people able to serve for a trial that could last six months.

Opening statements are expected to start next week.

The crime

The Rafay family immigrated to Canada from Pakistan, settling in Vancouver in the late 1970s. In 1992, Tariq Rafay, a structural engineer, took a job at a Bellevue engineering firm.

The Rafay family did not come to Bellevue by choice. Tariq Rafay had twice lost his job in an economic downturn. The first time, in the mid-1980s, the family returned to Pakistan. They moved back to Vancouver in the early 1990s when Tariq Rafay got a job at a Vancouver engineering firm, but the company folded after a few months.

For about two years after finding the Bellevue job, Tariq Rafay shuttled between an apartment in Renton and the family home in Vancouver. In March 1994, with Atif Rafay away at college, Tariq, Sultana — a nutritionist — and Basma Rafay moved into a split-level house in Somerset. The quiet, bookish couple who enjoyed Urdu poetry were happily settling into their new home, friends said at the time.

That summer, Atif Rafay and his buddy, Sebastian Burns, took a bus from Vancouver to visit the Rafay family in Bellevue. The two shared a passion for movies and were aspiring filmmakers. They were smart kids, though classmates said they were arrogant in their intellectualism.

They were fans of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and were intrigued by Nietzsche's "Superman" doctrine, which holds that moral values don't apply to those of superior intelligence. They both got high grades but also earned reputations as troublemakers.

Rafay and Burns had been in Bellevue less than a week when, shortly after 2 a.m. on July 13, 1994, Burns called 911 from the Rafays' kitchen. In a breathless voice, he told dispatchers there had been "some kind of break-in" and that his friend's parents were dead, charging papers say.

Police later said Sultana Rafay was attacked first, then her husband, then their daughter.

Sultana, 56, was unpacking boxes in the basement and apparently didn't see her assailant approach from behind. She was struck twice in the head with a heavy, blunt object and was found face down on the carpet, a bloody shawl covering her head.

Tariq Rafay, 56, was in bed asleep when he was repeatedly struck in the head and face. The "violence meted out to him was grotesquely gratuitous," charging papers say. He was beaten so badly he was almost unrecognizable, the papers say.

Basma Rafay, 20, was in her room. She was autistic and hadn't spoken a word since childhood. When police arrived, they could hear Basma moaning and found her lying against her bedroom door, perhaps in an effort to block her attackers' re-entry. Her arms were covered in bruises, proof she'd tried to fight back, and the wall above her bed was crushed, apparently by blows that missed their mark, charging papers say. She died five hours later.

Scientists in the state crime lab later determined the three were most likely killed with an aluminum baseball bat. A murder weapon was never found.

The investigation

Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns told police they had left the Rafay home at 8:30 p.m. July 12. They ate dinner at The Keg in Factoria, watched the Disney movie "The Lion King" at Factoria Cinemas, had a snack at Steve's Broiler in Seattle and stopped by a Seattle nightclub at closing before returning home and finding the bodies. Witnesses saw the two at each location.

At first, police considered their alibis airtight. But later they said Rafay and Burns had enough time between the movie and the trip downtown to commit the crimes — ostensibly to cash in on $350,000 in life-insurance policies and proceeds from the sale of the Rafay home.

Police and prosecutors say Burns stripped to his underwear to avoid getting bloodstains on his clothes. While "defendant Rafay watched and disconnected the VCR, defendant Burns beat the victims to death with a baseball bat," charging papers say. Afterward, Burns took a shower.

The police timeline will be an issue at trial for several reasons: Neighbors reported hearing sounds that could have been the thuds of a baseball bat from the Rafay home at a time the defendants apparently were confirmed to be elsewhere; and King County medical investigators couldn't pinpoint times of death for Tariq and Sultana Rafay.

Defense attorneys are expected to argue that police ignored forensic evidence — a fingerprint in the shower, hairs found by Tariq Rafay's body and bloody shoe prints in the garage and garden — that could point to another killer. It's also likely they will try to prove that police failed to pursue informants' tips, one implicating members of an extremist Islamic group and another that suggested an assassin was paid to kill the Rafays.

But the state contends Rafay and Burns had both motive and opportunity. Prosecutors also say the two bragged about the killings to their best friend, Jimmy Miyoshi, who is expected to testify against them.

Back to Canada

The Rafays were buried in the Snohomish cemetery July 15, 1994. Atif Rafay and Burns missed the funeral. They were on a bus to Vancouver.

Once they crossed back into Canada, they were outside the jurisdiction of American law enforcement. Simply put, Bellevue police didn't have the authority to compel Rafay and Burns to cooperate with their investigation.

It took six months before Bellevue police officially identified the two as suspects. Then, in early 1995, a constable with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) read news reports about the unsolved killings and phoned Bellevue police, offering help.

The RCMP began investigating Rafay and Burns on suspicion of conspiring to commit murder and fraud. They launched "Operation Estate," an elaborate, five-month sting operation in which undercover detectives posed as high-rolling mobsters in an effort to elicit confessions and DNA samples. Detectives worked to entice Burns and Rafay into a world of organized crime with the promise of $200,000 for a film the two wanted to produce.

But there was a catch: In order to earn the trust of the faux criminals, Burns and Rafay had to tell the story of their own criminal pasts.

In tandem with the mobster scenario, the RCMP bugged the West Vancouver house Rafay and Burns shared and stole their car to plant a listening device in it — investigative methods that are illegal here. The RCMP recorded some 4,000 hours of audiotaped and videotaped conversations, including what are described as confessions from both Burns and Rafay.

False admissions?

Defense attorneys on both sides of the 49th Parallel have argued undercover detectives coerced and threatened Rafay and Burns into making false admissions. But Canadian judges and, most recently, a King County Superior Court judge have ruled Rafay and Burns weren't under duress when they said what they did. That ultimately leaves it to a jury to decide whether their statements about killing the Rafays are true.

Canadian police arrested Rafay and Burns July 31, 1995, the same day charges were filed against them in King County Superior Court.

At the time, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng estimated it would take six months to bring them to Washington to stand trial.

Instead, it took almost six years.

Maleng wanted Rafay and Burns brought back to King County but wouldn't say whether he'd seek the death penalty in the case. That didn't sit well with many Canadians, whose government abolished capital punishment in 1976. The defendants fought extradition and soon attracted international supporters, all opponents of capital punishment.

Attorneys for Rafay and Burns argued their case in British Columbia's lower courts and ultimately in the Supreme Court of Canada — twice. The first time, the court couldn't reach a decision.

Then, in March 2001, the court ruled the men's rights as Canadian citizens would be violated if they were to be extradited to a foreign jurisdiction where they potentially could be executed.

The ruling gave Maleng a choice: Let Rafay and Burns go free in Canada or remove the death penalty from consideration. He picked the latter. Three weeks later, the defendants were booked into the King County Jail, where they've remained since.

Though the trial was supposed to get under way last year, there have been other delays. First, Rafay asked for and received new attorneys because he said he couldn't get along with his old ones. Then, last August, Burns and one of his public defenders, Theresa Olson, were seen having sex in a conference room in the jail.

Soon after, King County Superior Court Judge Charles Mertel dismissed Olson from the case and ordered the appointment of new attorneys for Burns.

During lengthy pretrial hearings that began in the spring, defense teams for Rafay and Burns sought to suppress evidence gathered by Canadian officials. But in September, Mertel ruled that a jury will get to consider all the evidence, including grainy video footage that shows Rafay and Burns laughing as they talk about their roles in the slayings.

'Left it to God'

Bellevue police probed the lives of Tariq and Sultana Rafay during the investigation into their deaths. They said they found no one with a grudge against the family, nor did they find any problems, such as large gambling debts.

But the details of their deaths were so painful that Tariq Rafay's siblings told their elderly parents, who were still living in Pakistan, that their eldest son, his wife and daughter had been killed in a car crash.

"We never want to tell them," one of Tariq's brothers said two months after the slayings.

In a Toronto suburb almost 3,000 miles from Bellevue, another brother recently said it's impossible to forget what happened, even as family members have done their best to get on with their lives.

"The family is devastated," he said. "It was a very big blow" losing Tariq Rafay, a respected and humble man who others sought out for his wise counsel.

"I think about him every day and sometimes, I see him in my dreams," his brother said.

The brother — who asked not to be named — said as far as he knows no one in his family is planning to attend the trial. He said he trusts the legal system and is prepared to accept whatever verdict the jury hands down.

"Justice should be done, justice should prevail," he said. "As far as this trial is concerned, I've left it to God."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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