On the day Muaz Haffar was to appear in court, spectators packed the room.
The muscle-bound son of a prosperous suburban physician, the 21-year-old was accused of smashing in the head of a university student with a U-shaped bike lock, even as horrified residents of a campus community implored him to stop.
But the defendant didn't appear at Chicago's grim criminal court building on that July afternoon in 2005. Haffar had flown 6,000 miles away to Syria, where his mother lives and his family owns extensive property. Six months later, a grainy Internet video showed Haffar partying in a tailored shirt and slacks at a Damascus nightclub.
Haffar's plane ticket to freedom was bought by his father, a suburban businessman and doctor, according to two law enforcement sources involved in the investigation. And government records and interviews show that one of Haffar's older brothers accompanied him on at least the first leg of his journey out of Chicago.
The Haffar case is one of nearly a dozen identified by the Tribune in which close relatives are believed to have helped suspects in murders, rapes and other crimes flee across America's borders by giving them rides to the airport, money or shelter along the way, a Tribune investigation found.
In most states, relatives can be charged with a crime for aiding fugitives, but not in Illinois and 13 others. Here, under state law, no matter how heinous the fugitive's alleged offense, authorities cannot charge a "husband, wife, parent, child, brother or sister" with concealing or aiding a fugitive.
Advocates say it would be inhumane and unnatural to expect a person to surrender a close relative to authorities.
But critics say the family exemption encourages criminals to recruit relatives who can help them flee or conceal evidence with impunity, and prevents law enforcement from using the threat of charges to get information.
Nabil Haffar told the Tribune he didn't buy his son's plane ticket and has had no contact with Muaz since he became a fugitive. But he defended his son's decision to flee, calling him a victim in a fight that ended in death for student Tombol Malik.
"I support him," Nabil Haffar said. "I think he did the right thing because if he stays (in the U.S.), he will not receive justice. ... I would do the same if it happened to me."
The U.S. Marshals Service, which now leads most fugitive manhunts, at first expressed confidence that Haffar would be returned to face justice, and media attention to the case drew the involvement of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Illinois' powerful U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
But Syria has no extradition treaty with the U.S., and top government and military officials there have refused to hand over the fugitive to American authorities. Even without a treaty, countries can extradite criminal suspects if they choose, but Syria has sent only one defendant back to the U.S. for trial since 2003 — a suspect returned to Pennsylvania last year to face narcotics charges, according to Justice Department records.
Syrian authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
By December 2006, Haffar had changed his name to Omar Al-Sawwaf and formally become a Syrian citizen, a State Department email and other records and interviews show.
'Remember this face!'
Born in California, Muaz Haffar at 21 was working in the Oak Lawn gas station and mini-mart co-owned by his divorced father while taking classes at a string of local colleges. He drove a Mercedes his father bought him and lived in the family's home in Burr Ridge.
Haffar liked to grab a six-pack and fish for bluegills and bass in the small lake behind his father's home, said Mantas Matulis, a friend from high school. Standing 5 feet 5 inches and weighing 150 pounds, Muaz was a competitive weightlifter with a bull neck whose friends called him "Moose."
In July 2005, as a Friday night stretched toward Saturday morning, Haffar and Matulis were hanging out at a loft owned by Haffar's father in a campuslike collection of condo buildings near the University of Illinois at Chicago.
After they "had a few beers," Matulis told the Tribune, he and Haffar stepped outside to smoke Marlboro Lights. That's when UIC political science major Tombol Malik and a friend left a nearby party and strolled past with their bikes.
The son of a Sudanese research psychologist who studied at the University of Chicago, Malik grew up in Hyde Park as the playful and intuitive youngest child. The 23-year-old used his sister's old Pentax to capture street scenes of Chinatown and the stockyards district, joined peaceful demonstrations against the Iraq War and served as a court advocate for troubled youths.
As Malik and his friend Anthony Popelka walked their bicycles that night, Popelka noticed that Matulis was bleeding from the head and asked if he needed help, according to Popelka's later court testimony.
Matulis shouted, "What the (expletive) is it to you?" and punched Popelka in the face, knocking him to the ground, Popelka told police. Popelka said that when he looked up, he saw Haffar pounding Malik's head into the sidewalk with a bike lock.
Several residents and two security guards reported seeing Haffar on top of an unconscious Malik, smashing the lock into his face.
Haffar stood, kicked Malik's head and shouted, "Look at your boy now!" according to witnesses. "Remember this face!" Haffar allegedly said, pointing to himself.
Matulis also reportedly kicked Malik before he and Haffar ran. They were quickly caught by police.
Malik was pronounced dead at Stroger Hospital within an hour. His face and head were literally caved in; he had at least six skull fractures from more than 10 separate blows, with no defensive wounds.
At a bond hearing that lasted only minutes, prosecutors asked the judge not to release Haffar on bail. But because it was a Sunday, court records show, they couldn't get evidence from the medical examiner about the severity of Malik's injuries — information that would speak to the danger Haffar might pose if released.
Cook County Judge Maura Slattery Boyle set bail at $900,000, meaning Haffar had to raise $90,000, or 10 percent, to get out of jail.
Prosecutors did not ask the court to confiscate Haffar's passport or place restrictions on his travel, according to a transcript of the hearing.
In Chicago, Haffar's father quickly put together the $90,000 bail bond by drawing $25,000 from the Oak Lawn gas station he co-owned and raising the rest from relatives and private accounts. Over the protests of Malik's family, Haffar was freed from Cook County Jail less than two days after the July 9 incident.
Haffar returned to his father's home in Burr Ridge. According to Tribune interviews and records, he told his family and friends that his broken left forearm and swollen right hand had been injured while he was staving off blows — not beating Malik to death.
Haffar decided not to offer that defense in court. On July 26, two days before his next court appearance, Haffar boarded an Air France flight from Houston to Paris, according to a federal warrant.
He arrived at Damascus International Airport on July 27, according to an email sent by a State Department diplomatic security official involved in the search for Haffar.
When Haffar failed to show up for his Chicago court appearance, his sister Noor Haffar indicated to reporters that the family had no idea where he was. "Nobody has been able to get ahold of him. ... I hope he's OK," she said.
But Haffar's father said in a subsequent civil court deposition that Muaz's brother Mohammad Amin Haffar had accompanied Muaz on the first leg of his journey as he made his escape from Chicago, the Tribune found.
Investigators later learned that Nabil Haffar had bought Muaz's plane ticket, according to two law enforcement sources who discussed some case details on the condition that they not be identified.
Spotted on video
With the suspect in Syria, the Malik family turned to trying to get him returned as well as tracking down who helped him flee.
On July 29, Malik's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, engaging the Chicago law firm of Corboy & Demetrio to draft subpoenas to Haffar's father and other relatives and depose them under oath about what they knew of Haffar's flight and whereabouts.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Paul Peroutka, who took charge of the manhunt, cautioned the Maliks that the best strategy was not to let Haffar know he was being pursued, in the hopes that he might relax and make a mistake that would allow authorities to apprehend him, according to the Malik family's account.
Peroutka expressed confidence that the marshals would bring back Haffar, the family said, at one point assuring them and their attorney that Haffar would be captured in days or perhaps a week.
Against their instinct to push and publicize the case, the Malik family stood down.
Their hopes were stoked in the autumn of 2005 when a Syrian police general told the State Department diplomatic security official that his agents had staked out a gym and a mosque, as well as Haffar's family in Damascus. The Americans quietly confirmed that Syrian plainclothes agents conducted surveillance on the homes of the relatives, according to the U.S. official, who gave his account on the condition that he not be named.
U.S. authorities had traced telephone calls to Syria from Chicago-area phones associated with the Haffar family, according to a law enforcement source. But the Americans and Syrians still didn't know where Haffar was living in Syria.
It was the Malik family that unearthed a critical lead by finding a January 2006 Internet video of Haffar at the Mar Mar nightclub in Damascus. U.S. authorities quickly confirmed that the stocky man waving a cigarette on the edge of a crowded dance floor was Haffar.
The video had been posted on a Yahoo! News night life website, but the Malik family wanted to bring it to the attention of Chicago news reporters, hoping to re-energize the fugitive hunt and elicit more tips.
Peroutka again advised against it, writing in an email: "I can't stress enough how ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE it is that your family takes NO ACTION. ... There are many things going on in the background. If knowledge of the existence of this video clip were to reach the Haffar family, either in the U.S. or Syria, it would greatly hamper the investigation."
But as days turned into weeks with no visible progress, Peroutka told the Malik family in March 2006 that he was out of ideas, according to the family's account. The Maliks decided to alert Chicago news outlets to the video.
Once the news broke, Peroutka applied for a federal warrant for Haffar's arrest for flight to avoid prosecution.
Peroutka, who now works in the Treasury Department, declined to discuss the case.
The U.S. Marshals Service, also declined to comment. In an email, the service said reporters' queries contained "sensitive law enforcement investigative information, which should have not been released or provided, and may compromise the continuing effort" to bring Haffar back to face justice in Cook County.
Around the time Haffar formally became a Syrian citizen at the end of 2006, Syrian officials detained him, said they wanted to try him in Damascus for the Chicago murder and asked for America's evidence against him.
According to law enforcement sources, the Cook County state's attorney's office declined to participate or provide evidence, fearing a corrupt member of the Syrian regime might engineer an acquittal, and American judges could then rule that U.S. "double jeopardy" laws barred Cook County from prosecuting Haffar twice for the same charge.
Haffar's father told the Tribune that a Syrian court determined his son acted in self-defense and exonerated him. "They found him not guilty. It was self-defense," he said. "They let him go."
U.S. officials said they have no reason to believe a trial was actually carried out in Syria. But they acknowledge that Haffar is now free to travel within that country. "The only way we have any chance of getting Haffar is if he leaves the country," a Cook County prosecutor wrote in one email obtained by the Tribune.
In an interview at Dixon Correctional Center, where he is scheduled to serve two more years for second-degree murder for his part in the killing of Tombol Malik, Matulis told Tribune reporters that Haffar couldn't have been acting in self-defense as he pounded Malik's helpless body.
"When a guy doesn't fight back, he doesn't fight back. If there's no more danger, there's no reason to keep going," Matulis said.
As time passed, the contact between the Malik family and Peroutka became less frequent or encouraging. On Aug. 21, 2008, the Malik family attorney emailed Peroutka asking for any news. Peroutka's one-line response came about two hours later: "Unfortunately I am not at liberty to discuss an ongoing fugitive investigation."
Today, with unrest in Syria throwing the status of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government into question, U.S. State Department officials told the Tribune in a statement that they "hope for positive changes to the political situation in Syria that would allow for the return of Haffar to the United States to face justice."
In the U.S., the Malik family eventually won a $4 million default judgment against Muaz Haffar, although they have little hope of collecting that money. What they want most of all is for Haffar to be tried in an American courtroom.
But six years after the murder, the victim's relatives say they feel misled, then abandoned by the Marshals Service, the lead government agency in the manhunt.
"It's like there wasn't enough political will," said Malik's sister Shiera. "We want the U.S. Marshals Service and the State Department to know that we are still here and we are not going anywhere."
For his part, Haffar's father said he prays for his son's safety and hopes he is living a normal life.
Muaz, he said, "enjoys the protection of the Syrian government and they have nothing against him. I don't think he has the feeling that he should worry about it."
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