Suspect in student's slaying started new life in Syria

Shiera Malik, sister of slain student Tombol Malik, says, "We're not going to give up" in the search for the suspect in his death. (Abel Uribe/Tribune)

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.