Iranian's Suicide Solves Suitcase Mystery : Husband Joins Smuggled Bride in Death

Times Staff Writers

Last week, they left their native Iran for America--Mahmoud Ayazi, 31, who had spent the last eight years working and studying in Sacramento, and his new bride, Kataun Safaie, 20, the daughter of his parents' friends, the woman they had arranged for him to marry.

Next week, they will be going back to Iran together--both of them dead.

Safaie's body was found last Monday, crouched in a small tan suitcase that circled for hours, unclaimed, on a luggage carrousel at Los Angeles International Airport.

She had been accidentally asphyxiated, the Los Angeles County coroner ruled, perhaps from the pressing weight of other baggage in the pressurized hold of the jet that brought her here.

On Thursday, three days after her body was found and listed as "Jane Doe No. 3," the grieving bridegroom who had tried to smuggle her into this country was found dead, too, slumped in his car outside his Sacramento apartment, near the Cal State, Sacramento, campus where he had once studied.

Shot Self in Head

He had shot himself in the head, officials said, with the .45-caliber pistol he had bought the day before, when he told a friend: "I lost everything."

And not until Friday morning, when coroner's investigators here and in Sacramento linked the two deaths more than 300 miles apart, did anyone know who Safaie was, or how she had come to be in the suitcase.

"The Romeo and Juliet story has come back in all this. She just wanted to be with her husband," mourned Ayazi's roommate, Hadi, as he leafed through the album of wedding photos of the couple.

"They were in love and wanted to come to the U.S.," said another Iranian friend seated next to Hadi. "Obviously, they didn't know the consequences of sneaking her in that way. The poor guy had tried every possible way. That plan was ridiculous."

The plan--smuggling the five-foot-tall woman into the country in the suitcase--was evidently born of desperation.

Ayazi, on leave since October from his job as an electrician at Campbell Soup Co.'s Sacramento plant, where he had worked off and on for six years, had flown with his new bride from Iran to Frankfurt, West Germany.

In his personnel file, he wrote that he was going to Iran to attend to his ailing father, who needed eye surgery, and to get married. (The same file showed that he was married in 1978 to a woman named Linda. His roommate Hadi said the marriage was brief--her Catholic parents and his Muslim ones objected, and they divorced.)

But when they got to Germany, the newlyweds reportedly learned from the U.S. consulate there that Safaie would have to wait as long as a year for a visa, Hadi said. Ayazi, with his Iranian passport and U.S. "green card," could return right away. But his new wife, like the wives and young children of any permanent resident alien from any country, would have to wait her turn.

Would Not Wait

They would not wait, and they did not want to return to Iran.

So sometime last Monday, investigators believe, the bride donned sweaters, panty hose, trousers and socks, slipped gloves over her new gold wedding ring set with its 11 sparkling stones and crouched inside the tan, soft-sided suitcase which measured 16 by 33 by 10 inches. She tucked in a few bananas to eat on the nearly 11-hour flight across an ocean and two continents.

Authorities believe Ayazi checked the suitcase containing his wife aboard a Lufthansa flight, and then boarded the plane himself. (Lufthansa officials say their computer automatically erases airline passenger lists after several days; a spokesman said tickets will be hand-checked in Germany to find out exactly which flight Ayazi took.)

Airline tickets found in Ayazi's second-floor apartment show the two flew on Lufthansa; significantly, there were two tickets from Iran to Germany, and only one from Germany to the United States-- Ayazi's. (Sacramento Chief Deputy Coroner Bob Bowers said investigators found no other possessions of hers, except the wedding album, in the apartment they were to have shared.)

When the flight arrived, and the bag rolled down the ramp from the pressurized luggage compartment, coroner's officials believe Safaie had been dead for just a few hours at most, her chest too compressed to allow her to breathe.

'She Was Dead'

And when Ayazi went to collect his bride, "he said he opened the suitcase and she was dead," said his roommate, Hadi.

"He apparently stripped all the labels off the suitcase, left Los Angeles and returned to Sacramento late Monday," Bowers said.

To the friends who met him at the Sacramento airport that night, Ayazi said his wife was still in Germany. But they saw he was "in shock . . . he was obviously not the same guy we knew. We asked him and asked him, and all he said was 'I'm just dead. I lost everything.' He was in the process of dying."

For two days, Ayazi agonized over his secret, even as Los Angeles authorities tried to identify the body found in the abandoned suitcase. She had been discovered by Lufthansa employees, who opened it a bit after finding it unclaimed and "thought they saw a hand," airport Customs Supervisor Christopher King said.

The Iranian labels in her clothes, and some Iranian currency found on her, led authorities to pin down her nationality, but as late as Thursday--when Ayazi was already dead--they had noted that they might never find out who she was.

Bought Two Guns

During those two days, Ayazi had bought two guns, .32-caliber and .45-caliber pistols. He bought them privately, Bowers said; buying a gun through a store requires a 15-day waiting period.

Ayazi's torment did not abate, as news reports echoed authorities' speculation about the nameless corpse found in the suitcase. On Wednesday night, two days after returning to Sacramento, "He told me (what had happened) about four or five hours before he killed himself," Hadi said. "He said he was going to tell police (the next) morning."

He told Hadi, too, that he wanted to kill himself, but then "promised me he wasn't going to do it. I guess he was thinking about how he would respond to his wife's family."

Sometime before 6 a.m. Thursday, Hadi heard Ayazi leave their apartment. He asked where he was going, and Ayazi told him simply, "out."

"Two hours later the police were knocking on the door," another friend said.

Ayazi died not far from the university where, in 1981, he had earned a degree in civil engineering, five years after leaving Iran and his job as an auto electrician to study in the United States.

'Felt Guilty'

"I know the only reason he committed such an action was because he felt guilty," said his friend. "He was a very nice, honest guy, a beautiful person. We believe (the responsibility) should be placed on the embassy (consulate) in Germany who did not give him a visa. It's discrimination that immigration has for the Iranians. If he was from another country or she was, they would have gotten a visa easy."

That, said State Department spokeswoman Cindy Fox, is not so. The wait is long for everyone, she said, and officials are trying now to determine what Ayazi's immigration status was. "It's very, very sad, however, there are many people who wait a long time."

For example, Fox said, the waiting list of spouses and minor children of Mexicans who are waiting to join their green card-holding relatives, is "backed up to people who applied in April, 1977."

Getting back to Iran, though, will be much swifter; Hadi has promised to send both of their bodies back soon--together.

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