Sunday, November 30, 2008

Man jailed for underworld murder may be innocent

Nearly seven years ago the tortured and burned body of Syed Ali Mahmoodi-Oskui was found in a wood in London's stockbroker belt. When his friend, Rizwan Alvi, went on trial at the Old Bailey for his murder the jury were told that they had fallen out over money. But now the murder is set to be re-examined in the wake of fresh evidence obtained by The Sunday Times which suggests that Alvi may be in jail for a crime he did not commit

The basic bungle was in assuming that a man and his cellphone are never parted

The young man's body was well and truly ablaze by the time it was found, the light from the flames piercing the blackness of the winter night like a beacon. A man walking his dog in the wood just after 3am spotted the glow from the fire first, followed by a couple who had parked their car nearby hoping for a quiet kiss and a cuddle. It took just minutes for Surrey firefighters to reach the scene on the outskirts of the town of Weybridge, but by then Syed Ali Mahmoodi-Oskui was so disfigured as to be unrecognisable. It took police weeks to identify him using DNA and dental records; his family were advised not to view his body.

The motive for his murder was initially unclear. Known as Ali to his friends, the 27-year-old scion of a rich Pakistani family had always been a dapper dresser in life, habitually wearing a Rolex watch and a distinctive gold necklace. But when he was found, wrapped in a green sleeping bag and dumped in a thicket near a stream, both were missing.

The flames that had blackened his features had not actually killed him, however. His death had resulted from a vicious beating, a post mortem found, probably administered just hours before his remains were found.

Soon the police had their suspects. Prime amongst them was Rizwan Alvi, a 24-year-old Pakistani American and Ali's close friend. Rizwan's mobile phone records placed it, and therefore him, at the scene of the murder, which police decided had been his modelling agency, situated off Oxford Street in central London. Later that night the phone had also moved to the Weybridge area. Records of a series of calls made at the time between Rizwan's phone and that belonging to another man, Nouman al-Mussaoui, who worked at the agency, implicated them both in the crime.

Following the murder a group of men including Rizwan and Nouman had run up thousands of pounds on Ali's credit cards, frittering money away on buying clothes and ordering lavish meals in restaurants. Within weeks, Rizwan was arrested in Canada. At his trial at the Old Bailey the telephone records formed a central plank of the case against him, together with the fact that a pair of jeans, apparently found in his wife's suitcase, showed traces of Ali's DNA.

The motive for the killing, the court was told, was an attempt to extort money from the victim, leading to a strongarming which had gone tragically awry. It looked like an open and shut prosecution, the end result of a crime against a man whose faceless corpse exemplified the anonymous nature of the case. Sentencing Rizwan to life in prison following the jury's decision to convict, the judge told him he would serve at least 18 years behind bars.

The prosecution presented Rizwan, and most of the people he associated with as unsavoury characters. They had been embroiled in a world which most Londoners never see, yet which lies just beneath the surface of the capital's West End.....

On the night of Saturday, December 15, 2001, Ali was subjected to a vicious battering in the New York Looks offices, probably by more than one assailant. An autopsy later found that he had died after inhaling his own vomit following the beating, which had been inflicted with a "blunt object".

When questioned by detectives, Rizwan insisted he had known nothing about Ali's death. He said he had spent the night of the murder in a Mayfair nightclub, returning home to his West End flat and Maria in the early hours of the morning; he had never been near Weybridge and had not had his phone with him. However the police, now in possession of phone records linking Rizwan's phone to the crime scene, believed they had a strong case linking him to the murder.

Early in January 2002, detectives had found a suitcase containing a pair of blue jeans at the flat of Rizwan's wife, Maria. DNA analysis of a tiny yellowish stain on the trousers showed that it contained Ali's profile. Another, unidentified, DNA profile was also found but no match for it has ever been found.

For the police, the presence of Ali's DNA seemed to seal the case against Rizwan, even though the sample containing the victim's profile was so small it was hard to know whether it was blood, semen, or something else. The fact that Rizwan denied the jeans actually belonged to him did not impress the detectives. Nor did his ardent insistence that he had not been in possession of his phone on the night of the murder.

By the time Rizwan's case came to court in 2004, however, there had been some startling developments. Nahid Sultana, the girlfriend of a Greek web site designer named Vasilis Eugenides, had contacted police out of the blue with some urgent information. She told detectives that Vasilis had come home in the early hours of the morning after the murder in a state of agitation stating that he had been paid 1,000 pounds by a rich man to find his son. He had a pair of blue jeans he wanted washed quickly and a Rolex which belonged to a "dead man", which he sold two days later.

She also gave a dramatic account of what her boyfriend had apparently said happened that night: that he had gone to Nouman's office and found a man pointing a gun at him together with another man, described as "Nouman's friend". "Vasilis managed to snatch it from him and punched him, then went crazy and punched and kicked the man," she said. "The man started to hit him in the face with a pole left lying around the office...he continued to punch and kick the man. "There was a lot of blood on the floor and walls. His clothes were covered in blood. Nouman gave him clothes to change into and gave him the Rolex watch." Rizwan's name was noticeably absent from the story she told the police.

Months later, however, she retracted the incriminating elements of what she had told them about Vasilis, saying she had "made up lies because I wanted to get back at him". In court she said the blue jeans had vanished, she knew not where, and that the Rolex was in fact one she had seen Vasilis wear months earlier.

Doubts over his possible involvement remained, however. Vasilis's phone records showed he had exchanged 29 calls with Nouman on the afternoon prior to the murder. His mobile phone had also called a mini-cab number from Chiswick, the area where Ali's Skoda hire car had been dumped, at 4.15am on the night of the murder. In court it was suggested that the evidence showed a plot between Rizwan, Nouman and Vasilis to extort money from Ali by force.

But Rizwan insisted that he had been unaware of anything other than Ali's stated intention to commit credit card fraud in order to raise money: he had believed Ali had allowed his card to be used by others, including himself. Faced with the phone record and DNA evidence, however, the jury at the Old Bailey decided he was more than just a petty conman: he was a murderer and he was going to jail for a long time.

In November 2006, when Rizwan had been in prison for nearly five years, a former Chicago police civilian worker named Sean Collins made contact with the convict's family saying he had something that might be of some interest. Sean, a one-time neighbour of Rizwan and his brother Zishan, said that a month earlier Dennis Domsky, who he knew casually through his restaurant work, had sold him a gold chain for $30. Dennis told him he had obtained it from London when he worked there in 2001, he said. Dennis had told him that the previous owner "would not be looking for it", he added. Sean also said Dennis told him of an "incident" in which he had "dodged a bullet" while in London. Asked what he meant, Dennis had said that a mobile phone he had used on the night of the incident had belonged to Rizwan Alvi.

By itself, the affidavit appeared cryptic. But Zishan wanted to find out more. He invited Dennis on a night out to a casino and covertly recorded their conversation. On the tape of that meeting Dennis does not mention the phone, but he does tell a very different story to the one he told the FBI back in 2002, when he had pleaded ignorance. Now, on tape, he said he was present at the Oxford Street offices on the night of the murder, and heard others arguing in an inner room. Nouman had then emerged and told him to call Rizwan. Rizwan's use of Ali's credit card had been unwitting, Dennis said, because he "didn't know about the commotion."

The tape recording was intriguing, yet still hardly conclusive or exonerating of Rizwan. That changed, however, when I spoke to Dennis myself earlier this year. In a recorded interview he went much further. He started by setting the scene: "I was outside the office, and there was a little waiting area where you could just sit. And I was there for maybe ten fifteen minutes and there was arguing and shouting and all kinds of noise. And I believe that the three people there were Nouman and Vasilis and Ali."

As the shouting mounted, he said, Nouman emerged and asked him to phone Rizwan. "Nouman asked me to call Riz then I got hold of Maria and he said he was with Maria at the time. And I told Nouman. [He] said he was just trying to get hold of him [to] make sure he didn't come back to the office." Then Dennis dropped his bombshell, one that potentially even implicates himself in the murder. He said he had reached Rizwan on his wife's mobile phone. "And I had Riz's", he added. "I used it when I was outside the office..I used it all the time even to go shopping or whatever. It was an office phone."

Domsky insisted that after making the call he had exited the office, leaving Nouman, Vasilis and Ali in the room, returning only the next morning when he had found it comprehensively trashed. A black and white Ibanez electric guitar owned by Rizwan which had been hanging on the wall had been "busted off". "It was just a shambles," he said. He had cleaned up the office and then left. And he'd kept Rizwan's mobile phone overnight? "Yes, yeah, when I was at home asleep, sure," he said.

The admission was given further credence by the fact that when I showed a photograph of the gold necklace bought by Sean Collins to Alex Khawari, he confirmed that it belonged to his cousin.

And the records of Rizwan's mobile phone on the night of the murder show that after leaving Weybridge it travelled to Hallam Street in the West End, where Dennis lived, rather than the address shared by the Alvis a mile and a half away in Bayswater.

As for Rizwan Alvi, he spends his days in HMP Rye Hill, a category B prison in Warwickshire. He has changed lawyers frequently during the past two years as he searches for someone who can present his case in the best possible light. Now he is represented by Campbell Malone, a high profile solicitor with a penchant for righting miscarriages of justice who says his client has a "strong case".

Other aspects of the case against Rizwan are also being challenged by his legal team. For instance, a new forensics report commissioned by his defence states that the jeans found in the suitcase cannot belong to him since they show no trace of his own DNA. And at Rizwan's trial the prosecution showed the jury CCTV footage from the day after the murder supposedly depicting him holding his mobile phone. But a fresh analysis of the film claims to prove that the object is in fact a pair of gloves.

Since The Sunday Times spoke to Dennis Domsky, the Criminal Cases Review Commission has visited Rizwan in prison. A verdict on whether he should have his case referred to the Appeal Court, possibly for retrial, is due soon.

More here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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