Now Playing

Brainwashed, Enslaved, and Trafficked in Mountain View

A slick-talking con artist turned an innocent brother and sister into his personal slaves. When one escaped, they learned they weren’t his first—or last—victims.

SLIDESHOW

Dark days: Suleman Masood, once a victim of a horrifyingly cruel campaign of abuse and labor trafficking, revisiting the scene of his living nightmare.

(1 of 9)

Suleman at one of the restaurants where he worked while under Ahmad’s control.

(2 of 9)

Relics of horror: Suleman’s Sierra Vista Hospital bracelet, given to him when he was admitted with severe injuries, inflicted through torture and abuse suffered at the hands of Ahmad Moustafa.

(3 of 9)

Suleman’s seventh-grade PE shirt, which Ahmad forbade him from wearing outside because it had his name on it (for a time, the shirt was Suleman’s only piece of identification).

(4 of 9)

A stress ball that Steven Dal Porto, the Santa Clara County district attorney who prosecuted the case, gave Suleman when the judge found Ahmad guilty of all charges.

(5 of 9)

Suleman’s cell phone, which Ahmad smashed with a hammer.

(6 of 9)

Suleman at the tracks in Mountain View where for weeks he considered killing himself by jumping in front of a train.

(7 of 9)

The spellbinder in custody: Ahmad after he was arrested in Mountain View.

(8 of 9)

(9 of 9)

 

On October 4, 2013, Suleman Masood, a 20-year-old employee at a Safeway in Mountain View, quietly approached his coworker Javier Zaragoza and asked if they could meet in the staff room on their break. When Javier walked in, he saw Suleman sitting at a table next to the refrigerator, banging his head against the fridge. His face was swollen, and bruises covered his forearms. When he looked up at Javier, his pupils were like glazed black pools. “I’m going to die,” he told Javier flatly. His sister’s boyfriend, Ahmad Moustafa, or one of the many government agents working for him, could have him killed at any time. He had to get away. He begged Javier to drive him to San Luis Obispo, where his parents could meet them.

Shaken and confused, Javier agreed. At the end of their shift, they got into Javier’s gray Honda Prelude and headed south. Suleman turned off his phone and poured out a horrible tale. For months, Ahmad had been torturing him, he said. He’d burned his genitals and held his face to a hot stove. Over the past few weeks, Suleman had contemplated jumping in front of a train. There was no getting away from Ahmad, he said. He had spooks everywhere.

The entire way, Suleman lay flat in the reclined passenger seat, hiding from the agents he was sure were following them. At one point, a police car passed and then turned on its siren. Suleman started hyperventilating. “We’re gonna get shot,” he screamed. “We’re gonna die here.” Around 2 a.m., Suleman phoned his mother and arranged to meet his parents at a family friend’s restaurant. Half an hour later, as Javier turned off the road, he saw the family’s silver SUV idling in the unlit lot. Suleman was frozen; Javier had to lift him out of the car. The Masoods embraced their son, thanked Javier, gave him money for gas, and drove off into the night.


Four years earlier
, on Halloween of 2009, Meena Masood told her younger brother Suleman that she had met a guy and was bringing him to meet the family at their home in Santa Maria. She’d been seeing him for only a couple of months, she said, but he was special.

Meena was 20 years old, with her mother’s sleek black hair, bright eyes, and alluring voice. She’d never had a serious boyfriend before, and Suleman and his parents, Saba and Adeeb, were delighted by her news. If Meena was bringing a man home to meet them, it meant she intended to marry him. (At their request, we have changed the first names of Meena and her parents.)

Ahmad Moustafa made an immediate and favorable impression on the family. A tall, powerfully built 24-year-old dressed in a well-cut suit, he handed out expensive gifts and exuded worldly confidence. Suleman, a shy 16-year-old with a gentle, cub-like demeanor, had never met anyone like him. Ahmad’s life story was entrancing. He was a high-ranking American military official with diplomatic immunity, he said, who had previously held important national security and military posts in the French and Egyptian governments. His current work was confidential, but he indicated that he moved with ease in a world of wealth and power. Ahmad flattered the Masoods, enthusing about their immigrant story and the decor in their home.

Suleman was nerdy, a sports and hip-hop fan who had dreamed of playing for the Lakers, an ambition scuttled by his lack of height and coordination. Posters of Kobe Bryant and G-Unit lined the walls of his room. He also had an illusion mirror, which when turned on placed the viewer in an endless tunnel. Santa Maria was a sleepy town, and Suleman spent as much time as he could on the phone with his numerous cousins. “You could tell Suleman always wanted a mentor, someone to look up to,” says one of them, Sameer.

For the Masood kids, there had always been a certain tension in being the children of Pakistani immigrants, caught between traditional Muslim and contemporary American culture. Ahmad was able to relate to both sides of the divide. The Masoods, parents and children, welcomed him as a new member of the family. Saba began referring to Ahmad as her son.

In the weeks that followed, as Ahmad grew closer to both Meena and Suleman, he began sharing secrets of his classified work. As an Egyptian military agent, he had specialized in interrogation and torture, he said. He told Suleman that he had been directly involved in the killings of more than 100 people. He showed Suleman and Meena photos of himself in a fighter jet. As cover for his work at the U.S. Department of Defense, he explained, he was employed at hotels in Santa Barbara and Goleta, about an hour south of Santa Maria. He sometimes wore what appeared to be a camouflage Air Force suit, and he bragged about his connections in Washington, in the armed forces, and with local police. He said he’d met President Obama.

In November, less than a month after meeting Ahmad, Meena proudly introduced him to her extended family at a dinner at the home of her aunt Patty and uncle Zahid Masood in Westlake Village, north of Los Angeles. Ahmad cut an even more imposing figure than usual: He wore a dark suit with an ascot, polished leather shoes, and an overcoat. Suleman and Meena’s loud, free-spirited cousin Saira, one of Patty and Zahid’s daughters, exclaimed, “Wow! You are snazzed up!”

But she and the other cousins there immediately sensed something strange about Ahmad. “The mood shifted very quickly from being light and festive to more serious,” Saira says. “Something was just off.” Meena kept her head down most of the evening; she didn’t speak to her cousins in the spunky, sarcastic way they expected of her. When they started a card game, Meena didn’t play. (According to Saira, Ahmad had told Meena that she shouldn’t gamble, because it violated his Muslim faith.)

After a couple of hours, Ahmad startled everyone by stating bluntly that he wanted to kill his doctors. He’d had an operation at UCLA related to his cancer, he said, and his surgeons had left a pair of scissors inside his body. Patty happened to work as an oncology nurse at UCLA, and she asked him who his doctors were, what kind of procedure they had performed, and what type of cancer he had. Ahmad refused to answer her questions. His case was too complicated and high-level to explain, he said, and Patty didn’t know what she was talking about.

Visibly upset, Ahmad announced that he had a doctor’s appointment the next day and needed the Masoods to take him home. Saira and her sister Alisa, who had already been finding Ahmad insufferably arrogant, were unnerved by how quickly he had swung from being charming to sullen and angry. But they nervously laughed it off.

After the dinner, Meena accused her aunt and uncle of disrespecting Ahmad, according to her cousin Saira. Meena said that, as a retaliatory measure, Ahmad had acquired the house across the street from theirs and was hiring a hit man to watch them. “We knew it was all a lie,” Saira says. When she asked Meena why she believed Ahmad’s obviously far-fetched stories, Meena grew defensive. “You shouldn’t say that about him,” Saira recalls being told. “He’s going to get angry.”

The dinner created such a rift between the two families that they barely spoke for months. When Meena did eventually contact her uncle, in January, she accused him of abusing her, a claim Saira considered preposterous. For her part, Saba, the siblings’ mother, is now clearly embarrassed by her credulity at the time, and her explanations for her reactions are not entirely consistent. She says that she and her husband were skeptical of Ahmad from the start, but “we didn’t catch his lies. This is our daughter’s first love, and she didn’t want to hear us and our sense of the guy.”

Finally, a couple of months after Meena’s January accusation, the cousins met at a Pakistani restaurant for dinner. Saira was shocked by Meena’s and Suleman’s appearances. They looked undernourished and were disturbingly subdued. “They were so thin, with bags under their eyes,” Saira recalls. “They would only eat a cup of rice for dinner, and they couldn’t talk about anything having to do with Ahmad.” The bright, radiant people she’d known had been replaced by timid wraiths.


As Meena and Ahmad
grew closer, Suleman was drawn more and more into the older man’s orbit. By early 2011, when Suleman began applying to colleges, Ahmad had become his hero. While Meena envisioned a perfect life as Ahmad’s wife, Suleman dreamed that one day he would become one of Ahmad’s trusted men. Ahmad assured him that if he worked hard at his studies, he would hire him. Suleman was ecstatic. This man who had killed terrorists, whose online name was Iron Man, was promising to take Suleman under his wing at the Department of Defense.

By this point, Ahmad’s relationship with Meena, who’d enrolled at UC Merced, had become more coercive. “He controlled how I should act, what I should eat,” Meena says. “I had to let him know where I was at all times.” They broke up on several occasions, but she always came back. Ahmad had an uncanny grip on her. And she seemed resolved not to admit that her first love might not last.

Meanwhile, the family feud grew more bitter. Ahmad escalated his threats against the Masoods’ relatives, telling Suleman he’d put a bullet in his uncle’s head. Tensions also began to build between Ahmad and the siblings’ parents. Adeeb and Saba had initially repressed their doubts about Ahmad, because they wanted to support their daughter, but as time went on, they too began to privately question his fantastical stories. Ahmad became hostile toward them, accusing Adeeb of abusing his family and warning that he could have them erased. “My people can come and get rid of your whole family,” Suleman remembers Ahmad saying.

After Suleman graduated from high school, he enrolled at UC Irvine as a biology major. But Ahmad remained a central figure in his life. They called and texted often. Ahmad told him that his men were watching over Suleman, keeping him safe from old high school classmates who were trying to recruit him into the Muslim Brotherhood. When Suleman confessed to smoking marijuana, Ahmad admonished him for affiliating with the very gangsters he was tracking through a government database. To this day, Suleman is convinced that Ahmad had him watched: He recalls the same few men eyeing him at school and at his job.

Around the same time, Ahmad began to physically abuse Suleman for minor transgressions—slapping him for a bad grade, or not keeping his car clean, or being late. The stress took its toll on Suleman, who was already getting poor grades. A year into college, Ahmad advised Suleman to drop out and move with him and Meena, who was leaving UC Merced, to Mountain View. Suleman dutifully enrolled at San Jose City College and prepared to relocate north.

When the siblings arrived at their parents’ home in Santa Maria to pack up their possessions, Saba mustered the courage to ask Ahmad why he was doing this and to say that it wasn’t right. His response was “Do you want to see your kids or not?”
“We had no say,” Saba says. “They were already being held hostage under him. We were totally out of their lives.”

Saira, their cousin, shuddered when she learned of the move. “Meena made sense—she was enamored with this guy,” she says. “But Suleman didn’t make sense. Or maybe it did. He was like a soldier. I think Ahmad was just brilliant in what he was doing.”

In August 2012, Meena and Suleman arrived at 1902 Montecito Avenue, the two-bedroom apartment about a mile from Google’s headquarters that Ahmad had rented. It had mustard-yellow walls, creaky cabinets, faded beige carpet, and weathered window screens. The shower had a loose handle that eventually fell off, forcing them to use a wrench to turn the water on and off. Suleman and Meena shared a room with two twin beds. The other room was Ahmad’s office and bedroom, where Meena was sometimes invited to sleep. On Ahmad’s door was a red Restricted Area placard and a sign saying Cameras in Use. No one except Meena was allowed to enter Ahmad’s office, which he explained contained classified files—“not unless you were government personnel,” Suleman recalls.

Ahmad gave Suleman a long list of household tasks to perform. The dishes and kitchen floors were to be washed daily, the bathroom cleaned every other day, the furniture polished weekly. Bacteria could worsen Ahmad’s rare form of cancer, he said. Ahmad also instructed Suleman to get a job, in order to support the household and “become a better man.” After Suleman was hired at Walgreens, Ahmad helped him set up a bank account. The rent was due to Ahmad on the 1st and the 15th of every month. Suleman would withdraw cash, often with Ahmad present, and put it in an envelope for Ahmad to deposit. Meena got a job as a teller at Bank of America. They each paid Ahmad $650 twice a month for rent, which Suleman later found out was about $1,500. Later, Ahmad increased Suleman’s contribution to $2,400 per month, forcing him to hold down several jobs.

Ahmad’s treatment of the siblings veered from domineering to outright abusive. He imposed a restricted diet: Suleman usually ate rice with frozen vegetables, Meena TV dinners. He also forced them to eat pork, against their Muslim beliefs. With no money of his own, Suleman resorted to filling out Jack in the Box polls that he could redeem for free tacos. Meena was required to dress per Ahmad’s instructions. Her hair had to be pulled back and her finger-and toenails painted red. The more severe physical abuse started in early 2013, according to both siblings. If Meena talked back or argued, Ahmad would beat her, she later told detectives. “He would choke me sometimes. He would kick me on my legs when I would be on the floor. He would pull my hair and drag me to our room.” Once, he choked her until she passed out. She woke up dizzy and confused next to Ahmad, who had the TV on and said he wanted to watch a movie. When she asked him what had happened, he replied, “You were just tired.”

By spring 2013, some nine months after the move north, Ahmad had taken complete control of the siblings’ lives. Meena was required to be with him whenever she wasn’t at work. Potential friends needed to be approved by him. Ahmad told her that if she tried to leave, he or his people would kill her and her family. Suleman was made to write daily reports detailing his performance at work and school and his six-year self-improvement plan, which would lead to the job Ahmad had reserved for him. Such reports, experts say, are a hallmark of coercion and trauma cases.

In August of that year, Meena and Ahmad flew to Egypt to visit his family. It was a strange and unpleasant trip, Meena later told detectives. They stayed at the family’s luxury apartment on the top floor of a building in Maadi, a wealthy Cairo suburb, but Ahmad and his father, who she was told owned a construction business, got into such a bitter fight that the couple had to change houses. She asked Ahmad if he was OK—“if his brain hurts,” she told the detectives. “Then he yelled at me. He said, ‘What are you trying to tell me? That I’m a psycho?’” Meena said that near the end of the trip, Ahmad’s father told her, “If you ever go against Ahmad, we will be on your side.”

But rather than plotting her and Suleman’s escape, Meena resumed life with Ahmad in Mountain View. She meekly endured his many outbursts and joined him in berating Suleman as an unstable screwup who needed Ahmad to take care of him. Suleman accepted this critique. In a letter to his uncle, he wrote, “We are determined to build ourselves and Ahmad has graciously helped us and continues to do so.” On another occasion, he took talking points with him when he went to meet with his uncle Sajid and aunt Saba, who were worried about him. “Sajid had the nerve to call me brainwashed!” he later wrote to his relatives in Westlake Village. “To be completely honest with you, after all I have heard, I am still shocked to this day that Ahmad hasn’t put a bullet in my father’s and uncle’s heads, and I feel very sorry for what is going to happen to them in the future.”

The siblings’ cousin Sameer recalls overhearing conversations between his mother and Saba after another such visit. Saba “felt like they were drugged,” Sameer says. “She kept saying, ‘It’s not them.’” Saba developed heart problems from the stress, eventually requiring surgery. “Our family didn’t have any experience with this type of powerful person, and our children were too young to realize the reality,” she says. “We were not allowed to ask questions. I was sweet and loving to him over texts because if I argued, I would not see my kids. It was a living nightmare.”


One winter night
, Suleman returned from work at Walgreens, got into bed, and, with his sister asleep across the room, began to masturbate to online pornography. Afterward, he got up to change his shorts, and Ahmad suddenly opened the door. Meena woke up to see Suleman at the closet near the foot of her bed. “What’s going on?” she asked.

A couple of months later, Ahmad accused Suleman of raping Meena, who went along with the story. As punishment, Ahmad emptied the contents of Suleman’s wallet, shredded his credit card, driver’s license, and social security card, and put his passport in a safe. He then drove Suleman and Meena to Santa Maria, where he forced Suleman to confess to his parents that he’d raped his own sister. Meena, in tears, said nothing.

Recalling the visit, Saba says that her daughter was “not in her right senses at all. It was like she couldn’t hear and had no idea where she was.” Saba and Adeeb implored their children to say whether the alleged rape had actually taken place, but both were too afraid to speak. Saba pleaded with them to stay with her and their father, to no avail. In the early morning hours, they left with Ahmad.

After the rape accusation, Ahmad’s physical abuse of Suleman escalated to torture. Suleman later testified in court that Ahmad used a screwdriver, a wrench, pliers, matches, bleach, and a hammer on him, paying particular attention to his genitals. Suleman was made to remove his clothes before these sessions, which took place in the bathroom. Ahmad would turn up the volume on his stereo and dance. Then he would seize Suleman’s penis and testicles with a pair of pliers. “He’d squeeze my balls like a grape,” Suleman said. Ahmad lit matches and grazed them across Suleman’s chest, the tip of his penis, and his anus. “You’ll never have children,” he told him. “You did this to my girl. I’m going to make sure you never have kids.” He sprayed bleach on Suleman’s genitals and shoved a small glass figurine into his anus. At one point, Suleman passed out from the pain.

Later, during interviews with detectives and in sworn testimony, Meena confirmed Suleman’s account of the torture. She recalled seeing her naked brother hunched on the bed in Ahmad’s room, crying, as Ahmad smashed his toes and fingers with a hammer. She said she didn’t call the police because she “didn’t believe it was happening” and because Ahmad said he’d kill her brother if she did. In any case, she figured, it would be useless: Anyone who came would be one of Ahmad’s men.

Suleman also believed that escape was impossible. Weeks into the abuse, he was fired from his barista job at Starbucks for being chronically late and failing at simple tasks. His manager there had expressed concern about visible signs of abuse, but Suleman had dodged the questions. His life became a hallucination; night and day blurred together. By September, he was thinking about suicide constantly. “It was like a numbness in my body,” he says. “I could not hear, could not see. It felt like I took a long nap.” Finally, he decided to run away. He had nothing to lose, he reasoned. Stay or go, he’d wind up dead.

A few hours after Suleman and Javier left the Safeway on October 4, Ahmad texted Suleman: “Call me back ASAP.” Around 1 a.m., with neither Suleman nor his parents answering, Ahmad told Meena to call the police and report Suleman missing. He instructed her to say that Suleman was hanging out with bad people, that he might be in a gang, that he had been acting strange and using drugs. Detectives arrived to search the apartment.

Around the same time, Javier was carrying Suleman to his parents’ SUV. Once Suleman had recovered his senses somewhat, he ordered his parents to turn off their phones. He refused to say what had happened, why his face was cut and his arms were bruised, and why he couldn’t walk. He was starving. They took him to a Denny’s to eat and then to a nearby motel. Before he sank into sleep, he began to cry. He told them about the torture. Saba remembers thinking: What happened to our child?

In the morning, they checked Suleman into Sierra Vista Hospital in San Luis Obispo, where nurses took more than 100 photos of his body—swollen ears, cut shoulders, inflamed groin, bruised back and buttocks, chemical burns on his genitals. The ER doctor called the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department. During questioning, Suleman told deputies, “This guy is Department of Defense.” An officer replied, “What if I told you that we’ve checked every database, every system, and this guy has no connections to the government at all?” There was a pause. Then Suleman said, “Are you kidding me?”

After taking a statement from Suleman, the sheriff’s department contacted the authorities in Mountain View. Detectives from the Mountain View Police Department contacted Suleman and told him that he needed to return north with his parents. They wanted him to phone Ahmad and bait him into a confession.

The next day, Suleman returned to Mountain View, checking into a hotel with his parents. With a detective at his side, Suleman called Ahmad. As soon as he heard Ahmad’s voice, he tensed and his own voice became shaky. He told Ahmad that he wanted to come home, as long as Ahmad promised not to hurt him. Ahmad said he’d never harmed him. “Did I ever hit you?” Ahmad asked. The detective gestured to Suleman to say yes. Ahmad became angry and asked the question again. “Did I ever hit you?” “Yes, you hit me, and I’m tired of lying for you,” Suleman burst out. Ahmad kept repeating the question. The detective told Suleman to hang up.

The next morning, Mountain View police phoned Meena and Ahmad about the missing person report and said that they’d found Suleman and the two could pick him up at the station. Before they left the apartment, Ahmad told Meena that if something were to happen to him, his people would take her to Egypt. A friend drove them to the station. As they walked inside, an officer arrested Ahmad and escorted Meena to an interview room.

Under questioning by detectives, Ahmad framed Suleman’s accusations as hyperbole. He said that Suleman had used Meena’s underwear to masturbate with and left the apartment messy to “provoke” him. Finally, Ahmad said, he had snapped and “hit [Suleman] a couple of times between the legs.” He claimed that he had been sodomized by his father as a kid and felt it was his duty to protect Meena from the same fate. He said he had pushed Suleman’s face toward a hot stove so he would know “what hell feels like.”

A detective gave Ahmad a blank piece of paper and a pen and asked him to write down what he would say to Suleman if he were in the room. Ahmad wrote, “I am truly sorry, Suleman, wish you the best of luck. Ahmad.”


During the years
that Suleman and Meena were under Ahmad’s control, their cousins tried to find out more about who Ahmad really was. But they came up empty. Google searches for “Ahmad Moustafa” yielded nothing besides his Facebook profile and photos from marathons he’d completed. No other traces of this man seemed to exist. Except that they did. Hidden away in dusty court records in Reno, Nevada, was an all-too-familiar story.

In 2005, a petite blond woman named Lauren DiPaolo was attending summer classes at the American University in Cairo when she met a man named Ahmad Moustafa. He introduced himself as a powerful diplomat with deep family ties to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He told Lauren that he had family in France, where he spent much of his time as a financial trader. He swept the young woman off her feet, and they quickly became lovers.

In November 2005, Lauren brought Ahmad to her home in Santa Barbara to meet her parents and younger brother, James. Ahmad impressed the DiPaolos with his connections to the Egyptian elite and said he had a home in Maadi for them. After he and Lauren traveled to Paris, where he said he had to sort out his visa, he told her that he intended to set up an investment business in the United States, explaining that he already had numerous wealthy clients lined up. Six months later, Ahmad and Lauren filed for a confidential marriage license in Tahoe City.

Almost immediately, the DiPaolo family’s life became a horror show. Just as he would do with the Masoods, Ahmad not only seduced Lauren but also cast a powerful spell over her younger brother. Ahmad convinced James, who had a Thai girlfriend at the time, that Thai gangs threatened his life. He also convinced James that he’d contracted HIV and that a partner in a business James had started had been killed. Lauren and James briefly moved with Ahmad to Reno, where they placed their passports and much of their money in a safe-deposit box. Ahmad also borrowed large sums of money from Lauren’s family.

Lauren’s parents, Nancy and Paul, both semiretired federal prosecutors, soon realized that Ahmad had gained a bizarre hold on their children and began looking into his many grandiose claims. He had said that he’d attended the U.S. Naval Academy, that he was a licensed New York Stock Exchange trader, that he had an investment company called Siwa LLC, that he had worked with the LAPD to eliminate the “Thai gang threat,” that he regularly visited specialists for an impending brain tumor operation, and that he was in the United States working as an Egyptian diplomat. All of it, they learned, was false.

Nancy and Paul, fearing that they’d ruin their relationship with their daughter, who stood by Ahmad steadfastly, declined to press criminal charges against him. Instead, they filed a civil suit to get back the more than $2 million they had given Ahmad for what they’d thought had been investments and medical procedures, but which he had used to buy furniture, rent luxury apartments, and acquire high-end cars, including an Aston Martin, a Bentley, and a Ferrari.

The DiPaolos’ fraud claim against Ahmad was tried in Washoe County district court in 2008. Mike Sullivan, the couple’s attorney, describes the case as the weirdest of his career. “My clients were very sophisticated people—­federal prosecutors, salt of the earth, nice people who really loved their kids,” he says. He remembers Lauren as a defiant teenager, “kind of plain-Jane, and here’s this guy who sweeps you off your feet with ‘My uncle owns half of Egypt.’” James, he says, was a naïve teenager. In court, Lauren was protective of Ahmad and bitterly resentful of her parents. “Lauren would dutifully support whatever he did,” Sullivan says. “She hated my guts, like, ‘How dare you question my husband.’”

Lauren testified that she knew that her husband wasn’t really a diplomat and that many of his other claims were also false, but that he suffered from untreated mental illness. “I knew that he has some deep-seated psychological issues, and I wanted to get a psychiatrist to help work those out,” she said. Explaining that Ahmad had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, she appealed to the judge and the prosecutor to see things from “a wife’s perspective…. He’s in deep pain trying to deal with something he’s had to deal with since childhood, and he doesn’t want to tell everyone that he has a psychological problem.”

“I know he lies sometimes, but he can’t be lying about everything,” she said.
In his defense, Ahmad testified that Lauren’s father had been critical of him from the start, leading Ahmad to lie about his past. Incredulous, Judge Brent Adams told him multiple times, “Listen to me. You’re under oath.” Ahmad responded, “This is a really bad mistake I made.”

Judge Adams found Ahmad guilty of fraud and in his closing statement called Ahmad’s rationale nonsense. “The defendant, in effect, committed family fraud.… [He] isolated one party from another, feeds false information to both, and the result is a huge financial gain on the part of the defendant.… This is one of the most transparent and convincing presentations I’ve seen of a course of fraud and deceit implemented intelligently, brilliantly, effectively, and disastrously to the plaintiffs over a very substantial period of time.”

Lauren’s mother tried desperately to keep the family together. Before the trial, she wrote Lauren and James an e-mail. “The fact is that [our family] has been destroyed from the inside out,” she told them. To Lauren, she said, “We have already forgiven you for bringing this con artist into our lives, who has caused such extreme and cruel health, family, and financial problems to us.” She pleaded with James to “wake up” to what had happened. During the court proceedings, James turned on Ahmad, but Lauren remained loyal to her husband for years. Finally, in 2013, she filed for divorce. She declined to comment for this story.

One year after the civil suit was settled, Ahmad, still married to Lauren, introduced himself over Facebook to a young woman named Meena Masood.


Ahmad had never
been convicted of a crime in the United States before he was arrested in Mountain View in 2013. He attended local community colleges and claims to have held management jobs at the Hampton Inn, the Sandpiper Lodge, and a Starbucks in the Santa Barbara area, and worked at the Rosewood CordeValle hotel in San Martin. His history in France and Egypt is murkier. A résumé lists a job at a French travel agency, but the company could not confirm whether he had worked there; neither could administrators from the French high school he listed confirm his attendance. One of Ahmad’s siblings, who lives in a suburb of Paris, declined to comment for this article without Ahmad’s consent.

Some former coworkers of Ahmad’s, employees at the Santa Barbara Starbucks where he was an assistant manager, recall his tall tales and the way he tried to impress customers who seemed wealthy. “Every story he had was turned up to 11,” a former barista says. The coworkers say that Ahmad refused to give his subordinates breaks and would scream at anyone who talked back. He was eventually fired. The same barista says he was always looking for a girlfriend. The coworkers vividly remember a party at which an intoxicated Ahmad tried to get several underage female subordinates to sit on his lap. Later that night, a blond woman named Lauren arrived and said she was there to pick up her husband.

At a preliminary hearing in February 2015 in Santa Clara County superior court, Ahmad pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including torture and trafficking (for retaining all of Suleman’s wages). Few attended the hearing, though Ahmad’s mother was present, clutching prayer beads. (Both she and Ahmad’s father apparently now live in Cairo; Ahmad’s father is paying some of his son’s legal bills, according to court papers.) Defense attorney Steve Polverino tried to cast doubt on Suleman’s story, asking why such a smart kid would submit to such treatment, never calling the police or telling his colleagues he was being abused. He’d had ample opportunity to leave, Polverino pointed out: The trip Ahmad and Meena had taken to Egypt had been a perfect chance to escape. District attorney Steve Dal Porto called Ahmad’s actions “sadistic and depraved.” He acknowledged that it can be hard to fathom why victims don’t flee abusive circumstances, but sometimes they “become convinced they have no options.”

The actual trial took place at the end of 2017. Ahmad and his attorneys opted for a bench trial, which meant that the decision would be left to Judge Andrea Flint rather than a jury. At the end of one month, during which 19 witnesses took the stand, Judge Flint found Ahmad guilty of all charges—torture, forced sexual penetration with a foreign object, trafficking, criminal threats, and corporal injury. The minimum sentence for torture alone is life.

About a week before the scheduled sentencing, Ahmad fired his attorney, and as of press time, a new attorney is preparing a motion for appeal. Ahmad did not return requests for comment, and his attorney advised him not to speak until after the motion for appeal is processed. Suleman, Meena, and their parents have all prepared statements for the sentencing hearing, which has been delayed because the trial’s transcripts have not yet been produced. In the meantime, five years on, they continue to try to put their lives back together.

Meena now has a family of her own. Suleman speaks (under a pseudonym) at conferences on victims’ rights and works for an anti-trafficking organization. He recognizes he is hardly a typical victim, of either trafficking or fraud, which makes rehashing his experience cumbersome. Trafficking victims are generally coerced, not conned in the manner of Dirty John or Frédéric “the Chameleon” Boudin, while relationship fraud victims are rarely subjected to the extreme violence carried out on Suleman. (Victims of abuse, especially male ones, also rarely report the crimes.) Ahmad is without question a con artist, but his use of torture makes him a highly unusual one. As Maria Konnikova notes in her book The Confidence Game, most con artists seduce people psychologically and then gain control of them financially, as Ahmad did. But most don’t physically abuse their victims; to do so risks exposure. Suleman still struggles to grasp what happened to him, to understand the baffling permeability of his own mind. And he still suffers from frequent nightmares. During a recent phone call, when I ask Saba how she is really doing, her tone shifts. “We are living healthy lives now. But mentally, we are still not healthy,” she says. “Mentally we are all still disturbed.”


During his years
in jail, Ahmad’s charisma has not forsaken him. In letters to the court, counselors in the Santa Clara correctional facility where he is being held describe him as a gentle and respectful man. They recount tales of Ahmad de-escalating fights, taking more than the requisite number of reintegration classes, and helping others with mental illness. A former cellmate of Ahmad’s wrote a letter to Judge Flint recommending that he be granted bail. “Moustafa was really interested in my personal growth,” he wrote. He called Ahmad “a good man…good to his wife, takes care of his family, faithful, loyal, and honest.” (The request was denied.)

A woman named Daisy also wrote a letter to the judge. Daisy said that she had connected with Ahmad through the former cellmate. “We are in a serious relationship,” she wrote. (Ahmad’s attorney later noted that Ahmad and Daisy are engaged.) Ahmad was not receiving proper medical care in jail, she said, and a tear in his colon was causing him excruciating pain. “Ahmad is not violent, he is a peacemaker,” she wrote. “He has kept his word by doing everything he ever promised to me.”

Madison Mainwaring contributed reporting.


Originally published in the November issue of
San Francisco 

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Nick Pachelli on Twitter @nickpachelli