The Rafay Murders: An Interview with Jason Flom (Part One)

Back in Capanne prison, I was lucky to receive daily correspondence from family, friends, and strangers alike. Not all of it was good; I got used to throwing out the death threats, marriage proposals, and images of my face photoshopped onto pornography. I received a number of letters from other inmates, too, almost always male, and they began in the (what I learned to be) typical way: “My name is ___. I’m 5’11’, 185 lbs, athletic build, brown hair, brown eyes.” In Italy, inter-prison courtship was as popular a pastime as playing cards and watching soap operas.  

Another one of these, I thought, as, one day, the guard handed me a letter whose return address was Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state. I was wrong. The man who’d written me didn’t offer his “credentials.” Instead, he was reaching out to offer his support; he had heard about me in the news and could relate―he had been wrongly convicted, too. He was educated, articulate, well read―not traits I could count on in most of my present companions, many of whom were illiterate. At Capanne, I often felt bereft of intellectual peers, and here was one from my native Pacific Northwest! I wrote to him about an Italian poet I was reading, Alberto Moravia. He quoted to me from Zalmen Rosenfeld’s Feeling and Form: “there may be in us all, no matter how damaged―and we are all damaged―a spark of that incorruptible beauty.” Here was a prisoner who kept his spirit up and his mind active. I admired that. He had been in prison for many more years than me, and as sad as that was, I saw in him a hopeful vision of myself, under the circumstances. I was looking forward to 26 years in that cell.

Our correspondence was short-lived. An official at Monroe realized that Casa Circondariale Capanne was a prison, and my new friend was forbidden from writing me again. His final letter was an apology and a bundle of all the letters I had written him sent back to me. We lost touch. 

Many years later, I met an extraordinary man named Jason Flom. Who’s Jason Flom?

Jason Flom  

I am Jason Flom, and I have been working on criminal justice reform writ large for almost 30 years now. I am the founding board member of the Innocence Project in New York, and have been deeply involved and committed to their work and their mission for over a quarter century now.

Amanda Knox   

What is the mission of the Innocence Project?

Jason Flom 

The Innocence Project is an organization that utilizes DNA to prove actual innocence in cases where people have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, and in which DNA is a factor and is available. That being said, there are Innocence Projects around the country, many of whom do work on non-DNA cases. But the Innocence Project in New York has been almost exclusively involved in DNA cases, and has also been a driving force in dozens of legislative changes to protocols that will help to prevent these types of tragedies from happening with such alarming regularity in the future.

Amanda Knox  

What are the kinds of wrongful convictions cases that most catch your eye?

Jason Flom 

Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t even know how to answer it, Amanda. They’re typically involving someone like yourself who has been railroaded. I can’t say that I particularly gravitate towards cases involving a certain type of person or a certain type of crime. Sometimes I just see one and my spidey senses go off and tell me I have to get involved.

Professionally, Jason is a big wig in the music biz. At Atlantic Records, he discovered and developed bands like Skid Row, the Stone Temple Pilots, Matchbox Twenty, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and artists like Kid Rock, Jewel, Tori Amos, and Sugar Ray. By the mid-2000s he was chairman and CEO of Atlantic, Virgin Records, and Capital Music Group, and founded Lava Records, signing Katy Perry and Lorde. 

But I know Jason through his philanthropy work, which is extensive. In addition to being a founding board member of the Innocence Project, he’s on the board of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Legal Action Center, Proclaim Justice, the Drug Policy Alliance, Injustice Watch, and VetPaw (he’s also vegan).

What makes Jason an effective media mogul is also what makes him an effective philanthropist. He excels at forging connections, doggedly advocating for the people and causes he believes in, and persuading those with power and influence to revisit what has been overlooked, and fix what has been broken. 

Over the years, Jason and I have become close friends. We refer to each other as big brother and little sister. Jason has connected me with other wrongly convicted people like Jens Soering, whose case I featured on my podcast, The Truth About True Crime, and Noura Jackson, whom I interviewed for this publication. Recently, he patched me into a call with another man serving a wrongful sentence, and when I heard his voice, I was shocked to discover it was my old pen pal, Atif Rafay. 

Atif is still fighting his wrongful conviction for an infamous 1994 triple homicide in Bellevue, Washington, not far from where I grew up. In the early morning hours of July 13, 1994, 18-year-old Atif Rafay and his best friend Sebastian Burns came back to Rafay’s parent’s home from a night out on the town to a gruesome crime scene. Sebastian called 911.

Youtube Sebastian Burns 911 Call

Sebastian: “There’s, I need an ambulance.”

Dispatcher: “OK. What’s your problem there?”

Sebastian: “There’s been some kind of break in.”

Dispatcher: “Just calm down there. What’s your problem?”

Sebastian: “The two, my friend, his mom and dad are, we think they’re dead.”

Dispatcher: “Just calm down.”

Sebastian: “I don’t think it’s safe here. I want, we’ll be outside.”

Dispatcher: “OK. Go ahead and go outside.”

Sebastian: “Please, fast, OK?”

Dispatcher: “We’re on the way.”

The Rafay family had recently moved to Bellevue from Vancouver, British Columbia. Atif and Sebastian lived at their respective colleges, Sebastian in Canada and Atif in New York, but both had been visiting and staying with the Rafays for nearly a week. 

The Bellevue police responded to the 911 call within minutes. Atif and Sebastian were waiting for them outside. Inside, police found the bludgeoned bodies of Tariq and Sultana, Atif’s father and mother. Basma, Atif’s mentally disabled sister, was unconscious but still alive. She died a few hours later in the hospital.

Detectives quickly determined that Sultana had been attacked first while she was unpacking boxes downstairs. Then the killer or killers had attacked Tariq while he lay asleep in bed, before moving on to attack Basma in her room. Tariq’s body was by far in the worst shape―he was unrecognizable, and his blood and brain matter were splattered all over the bedroom. Multiple neighbors reported hearing loud banging between 9:15 and 10:00 pm. 

One peculiarity set the investigation on track: the break-in was…off. Boxes had been overturned, but not rifled through, and very little seemed to be missing. This staged break-in, combined with the viciousness of the attack, made the police suspect that the murders were not random, but targeted and personal.

The Rafays were highly educated, liberal Muslims of Indian descent. Tariq was a structural engineer who had calculated that the qibla, the direction to which Muslims pray, was off by a couple degrees, and should be adjusted. He was also co-founder of the Canadian-Pakistan Friendship Organization, which championed multiculturalism and bridge-building between ethnic communities. In the days following, detectives received two separate leads indicating that the Rafay murders may have been religious executions.

The first lead was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) informant who reported that, two days before the murders were committed, a man told him he had been offered $20,000 to kill a Pakistani family that had recently moved from Vancouver to Bellevue, Washington. The second, an FBI informant, reported that a militant Islamic faction had stated that Tariq Rafay should die. He also observed a baseball bat in the trunk of a militant’s car, and believed it to be the murder weapon―indeed, impacts to the walls in the Rafay home confirmed that they had been killed with a baseball bat. 

Detectives did a cursory investigation into these leads, but dismissed them quickly, unconvinced that Tariq’s liberalism and quibbling over a few qibla degrees was enough of a threat to Islamic fundamentalism to make him the target of a terrorist organization. And anyway, they had other, more accessible, suspects already in mind.

Amanda Knox 

Why was none of this evidence ever taken seriously by investigators?

Jason Flom 

There’s a tunnel vision element to this. Once they focused on Rafay and Burns, they weren’t really interested or even able to process this other information. 

After questioning Atif and Sebastian outside the Rafay home and at the police station, detectives checked them into a cheap motel and submitted them to several days of further questioning. The teens each provided a detailed account of their evening leading up to their discovery of the crime scene―dinner, movie, nightclub, nightcap―confirmed by sources at each location. They willingly submitted to examinations for blood and gun residue, and came up clean. As for incriminating forensic evidence, an exhaustive search produced only what you’d expect to see from the two teens living at the residence for the past week, before someone turned it into a bloodbath.

But the detectives didn’t like their attitudes. They didn’t like how emotionally detached Atif seemed, and that he stood to cash in on $500,000 from his parents’ life insurance policy. They didn’t like how Atif and Sebastian left their motel to rent movies and buy books. Digging through old school records, they didn’t like how Sebastian had performed in a play about two friends who commit the perfect murder together. And they especially didn’t like how, after three days of isolation in unofficial police custody, Atif and Sebastian hopped on a bus to Canada to stay with Sebastian’s family, and out of the detectives’ reach. 

Atif and Sebastian were their prime―and only―suspects, and they were not about to let the lack of evidence against the teens be the final word. 

Amanda Knox  

How does the Rafay and Burns case compare to other wrongful convictions cases that you’ve looked into?

Jason Flom  

For the two guys to be framed in a way that is patently illegal in this country, it just really set me off, the idea that somehow the courts in America chose to allow a practice that is illegal here just because it was conducted in a different country.

Flom is talking about a law enforcement technique called Mr. Big, which is illegal in the U.S., but was used in Canada to coerce Atif and Sebastian into confessing. And why did they go to such lengths? Because these two precocious college kids didn’t act aggrieved enough in the wake of a heinous murder? Is it any wonder that, over a decade later, Atif wrote to me to say, “I know what you’re going through,” and a decade later, Jason Flom called me to say, “Amanda, you gotta talk to this guy”?

This is Part One of The Rafay Murders: An Interview with Jason Flom. Please find Part Two here.

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