Murder Suspect Hiding in Plain Sight

Associated Press Writer

Det. Brad Nelson's murder suspect hides in plain sight. An FBI agent has spoken with the man.

Around the world, investigators have laid traps, which will spring shut if he makes a mistake, such as returning to Rochester, or anywhere else with a watchful customs officer.

Nelson checks regularly for leads in the case. When another body is found, he asks if it could be connected. It never is.

He believes that the case is largely solved, yet the mystery remains.

And so, like the suspect whose name and whereabouts he knows, Nelson waits.

*

A township worker cleaning ditches found the two black trash bags.

He figured that they were garbage or deer hides from the hunting season that had ended a few weeks earlier. They were double-bagged. He dragged them into a ditch, then summoned a Bobcat loader that could handle their weight.

That's when a child's hand poked out.

Crying, thinking of his own daughter, the worker called 911.

The pager beeped at Herm Dybevic's side. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator soon was at the ditch just out of sight of the last housing development on the fringe of the city. It was the day after Thanksgiving 1999.

Officers were on the scene taking pictures as dogs searched for more bodies. An officer tugged on the second bag, found that it weighed perhaps 100 pounds and left it where it was.

Deputies tromped through the ditches and corn stubble fields looking for clues -- a dropped purse, a wallet, another body. They found nothing. The bodies were taken to a Mayo Clinic facility used for death investigations.

There, Dybevic, a veteran of more than 100 homicide cases, pulled on latex gloves, a plastic gown and shoe covers, and -- after someone took more pictures of how the lawn bags were tied shut -- cut them open. Inside one bag was the nude body of a headless woman; in the other was the body of a small boy, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, also decapitated. They appeared to have been dead a few weeks.

The woman wore a gold ring on her left middle finger and had been physically fit, perhaps in her 20s or 30s. Fresh, unscratched lavender nail polish covered her left fingernails, but there was none on her right, suggesting that she may have been killed while doing her nails.

The boy looked to be 3 to 6 years old. Both had brown skin. From the necks down, there was no sign of trauma. Whatever killed them happened above their shoulders.

*

The early investigation went nowhere. Without the heads, detectives couldn't look for dental records. No one recognized the woman's ring. Investigators hoped that someone -- a day-care worker, a Sunday school teacher, an aunt -- would notice that a child was missing.

At a news conference, Sheriff Steve Borchardt appealed to the public for help. "If you can't identify the victims, you can't solve the case," he said.

About a dozen detectives scoured national databases of missing women and children and pursued leads.

Detectives notified schools that they were interested in young boys who might have gone missing early in the school year, but nothing came of it.

Seven months after the bodies were found, detectives were no closer to knowing the victims' names or their killer. DNA testing determined that they were genetically related, but could not conclude how closely. The original detective assigned to the case took a promotion to lead a narcotics task force.

In May, the two victims were given a funeral, attended by many of the officers working the case -- paying their respects but also watching in case a suspect showed up.

They were buried under markers that read "Mother at rest 2000" and "Son at rest 2000."

*

Brad Nelson, 35, had never led a murder investigation, but the junior detective jumped at the chance to run this one.

Nelson grew up on a Minnesota farm, but the life held no attraction for him. He decided that he wanted to be a state trooper, but after graduating from college with a degree in law enforcement, the only job he could find was running a printing press. He had just about given up on his dream when Olmsted County hired him as a deputy in 1988.

Nelson had been married for nearly 10 years and had 7- and 3-year-old children.

Borchardt gave him the lead job because he knew cases like this sometimes go unsolved because a detail is missed -- and Nelson was the sort of detective who doesn't miss much.

One of the first things that Nelson did was to revisit the school records. On June 6, he wrote on Lead Sheet 479: "Check Rochester public schools for student that may have transferred, but may be the child victim. Kindergarten and first grade."

Six days later, the school came up with the names of 15 students who had transferred. Nelson assigned each to a new lead sheet and handed them to detectives for follow-up.

Some of the names fell to Rochester Police Sgt. Kent Perlich, who called the home and work phone numbers on the school records. Many of the children were with migrant families who had moved to Texas. Some were white, not a match.

And then Perlich found the name of Asif Ahmed.

The boy's parents had pulled him out of Gage Elementary School a few weeks after he began first grade in September. No other school had called to ask for his records. Perlich dialed the parents' home phone number, which was disconnected.

The manager at the apartment building where the boy's family had lived told Perlich that the family had cleared out in September without asking for their damage deposit, leaving behind all their belongings and breaking a recently signed lease.

Perlich dialed the work number of the boy's parents. It rang to the India Garden restaurant, where the owner told Perlich that Asif's parents used to work there -- father Iqbal Ahmed was a manager and mother Mary Zaman a waitress.

The day they left town, Mary, who was thought of as dependable, worked the lunch shift but didn't show up for the dinner shift. Instead, Iqbal called in and said he and his wife had a fight, and she had left for New York, and he was leaving to go find her. Neither one picked up their last paychecks. A restaurant manager said he checked the family's apartment and found it vacant.

Perlich felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

*

Nelson, Det. Dave Rikhus and other investigators pulled Iqbal's bank and credit card records. Those records told the chilling story of the weeks leading up to the killings, which detectives came to believe occurred Sept. 19, 1999, a Sunday:

* On Aug. 25, Iqbal bought airline tickets from Minneapolis to New York. A few weeks later, he bought tickets from New York to Bangladesh.

* On Sept. 5, he bought an ax and 12 extra-heavy-duty contractor's garbage bags.

* The Friday before the killings, he cashed two bad checks for $950 each. One of those checks was drawn on an account that had just $7.

* The day after the killings, Iqbal flew to New York. He had bought a ticket for a child too, but it wasn't clear whether that had been used. He spent two days shopping, then flew out of New York for Bangladesh on Biman Bangladesh Airlines.

Detectives also discovered that Iqbal had been charged with attempted second-degree murder and false imprisonment for an assault on Mary while they lived in New York, but the charge was dropped after she refused to cooperate.

Detectives believed their case was clinched when a fingerprint on the inside of one of the bags matched Iqbal's print from a cab license application in New York.

The next day, an officer from the Immigration and Naturalization Service told Nelson that Iqbal had tried to enter the country in early June. But the INS, unaware that he was a suspect, turned down his request for a visitor's visa because his travel plans weren't specific enough.

Three days later, Iqbal was charged with second-degree murder for the killings of his wife and son. The charge was sealed; detectives hoped that Iqbal might be lured back. This time, the INS promised to let him in.

For the next 3 1/2 months, investigators waited while federal agents tried to lure Iqbal back since there is no extradition agreement between the United States and Bangladesh.

But soon the case took another unexpected turn.

On Dec. 7, 2000, detectives got a call from the INS in New York. Agents were detaining a man named Mohammed Tareq, who had arrived on a flight into New York. Rochester detectives had asked that Tareq be held because they knew that he was Mary's brother-in-law. His wife, Sophia, had lived with her sister Mary in Rochester. She has not been heard from since September 1999, the same time that Mary and the boy disappeared.

Tareq said he was looking for his wife and son. Without a U.S. entry visa, he was sent back to Bangladesh.

But before he left, authorities seized family photos from his suitcase. At the Rochester detectives' weekly meeting about the case, Capt. Mike Lawler noticed something shocking: The shorts worn by Tareq's son looked the same as those worn by the dead child -- right down to the red and green buttons.

Could the boy from the ditch be Tareq's son, not Mary Zaman's?

On Dec. 20, an FBI agent based in New Delhi traveled to Bangladesh and found Iqbal, who allowed his son to provide a DNA sample. It proved the identity of the boy, Asif, who is alive and well in Bangladesh. Later DNA tests proved that the woman in the ditch was his mother, Mary Zaman, and the boy in the ditch was Taef, the son of Mohammed and Sophia Tareq. Authorities believe that Sophia is dead, although they haven't found her body.

Nelson figures that the motive for Mary's killing may have been jealousy: Iqbal believed that his wife was having an affair. The boy and Sophia might have simply gotten in the way, the detective thinks. But there's no way to know.

*

As long as Iqbal stays in Bangladesh, he stays free. Nelson has worked with federal authorities to get Iqbal's name on watch lists at ports worldwide. Every now and then, those nets snare someone named Iqbal Ahmed. After authorities confirm that he is not the suspect, he is released.

Chances for an extradition treaty with Bangladesh are considered slim, especially after the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made some majority-Muslim countries like Bangladesh wary of U.S. law enforcement.

In the village of Rahmatpur, Iqbal goes by the name Bulbul Mollah. He told neighbors that he left his wife in the United States because she had affairs with Americans and that her lovers threatened to kill him.

He lost a race for a local council seat in February. He has remarried.

*

In Bangladesh, AP Dhaka correspondent Farid Hossain contributed to this report.

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