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Extradition to follow O.C. slayings

A lawyer and friends of an ex-boyfriend who faces questioning say he wouldn't have done it.

June 01, 2007|Seema Mehta and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

PHOENIX — Days after two members of his former girlfriend's family had been slain and another severely beaten at their Anaheim Hills home, Iftekhar Murtaza told police he was flying to Bangladesh.

He arrived at Sky Harbor International Airport late last week with a ticket to the South Asian country, where his grandmother was ailing, his attorney said. He was stopped by U.S. marshals, was asked for his passport and, the attorney said, was wrongfully detained in connection with the brutal slayings.

Murtaza, 22, of Van Nuys, whom authorities described as a "person of interest," agreed in a court hearing Thursday to be extradited to California for further questioning. No charges have been filed against him, and police said they were looking for multiple suspects.

Court records indicated that "a victim" had alerted officers to Murtaza's possible involvement and that his cellphone had been used near one of the crime scenes an hour or so before the slayings. Murtaza had told the authorities he wasn't in Anaheim, where one crime scene was, on May 21, the day of the house fire, according to court records.

His attorney, Jeremy Phillips of Phoenix, said Murtaza had been inaccurately portrayed as a spurned boyfriend possibly bent on revenge. "Iftekhar is not guilty," Phillips said. "He is innocent of any crime."

Murtaza, who neighbors said worked for a loan company, had dated Shayona Dhanak, an 18-year-old UC Irvine student, for about three years.

Richa Singh, 23, a friend of Murtaza's who lives in Tucson said she couldn't imagine his doing anything to hurt the Dhanaks. "He just loved that girl," she said.

The pair met at a party in Orange County, where Murtaza was struck by her beauty, Singh said. "He kept saying, 'I have to know her, I have to date her.' "

After agonizing for days over how to ask out Shayona Dhanak, who had recently broken up with another young man, Murtaza took her on a hot-air balloon or helicopter ride and gave her an inexpensive ring, Singh said.

"He was super-nervous, and he was never like that over any other girl," she said. "He was the buff guy who never showed his feelings."

A gym rat who posted shirtless pictures of himself online, Murtaza showered his new girlfriend with roses and attention, said Singh, who met Murtaza about five years ago when she lived in Northridge. Singh had moved to Arizona by the time he began dating Shayona Dhanak, but said she heard of the relationship's ups and downs through e-mail and phone calls with him.

After about a year, Dhanak's parents began pressuring their younger daughter to break up with Murtaza, Singh said. They didn't like the fact he was Muslim, she said, and might have been displeased that he wasn't enrolled in college.

The pressure forced the couple to repeatedly break up and reunite, but Murtaza told Singh he wanted to sit down with the Dhanaks and talk things out. "She was his everything. It was like no other girl existed," Singh said.

Anisha Vasani, who said she was friends with both Dhanak daughters as well as Murtaza, said he could not have committed such a crime.

"He loved [Shayona] dearly and would not have caused her this kind of pain. The issue between the family and Iftekhar existed for years, but their love was strong and they broke up many times, only to get back together," she said. "I spoke to him about this before the murder and he was at peace with the situation.... Unhappy, but a very peaceful guy; always has been."

The latest breakup came a few weeks before the slayings.

Last week, authorities arriving at a late-night fire at the Dhanaks' home found Shayona Dhanak's mother, Leela, 53, bludgeoned and unconscious on a neighbor's lawn.

Several hours later, authorities discovered the badly burned bodies of her father, Jayprakash "Jay" Dhanak, 56, and her 20-year-old sister, Karishma, at a park near Concordia University and UC Irvine.

The victims had been variously strangled, bludgeoned, burned and stabbed, according to court records. Shayona Dhanak was at UC Irvine that day and was unharmed. She and her mother, who is expected to recover, are under police protection.

Investigators said they were continuing to look into whether Jay Dhanak's past was linked to the slayings. In 2002, he pleaded guilty to bilking the U.S. Postal Service out of millions of dollars as the operations manager for a direct-mail company. He was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison.

Authorities interviewed Murtaza last week, and shortly afterward he left for Arizona. Over the weekend, authorities feared he was fleeing the country and filed an arrest warrant in Orange County that has been sealed.

Phillips, Murtaza's attorney, said his client alerted police May 24 that he had bought a round-trip ticket to visit Bangladesh with his mother and would return in July. The fugitive warrant used to arrest Murtaza said he was carrying a one-way ticket.

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