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Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007 07:19 pm

Twice burned

She waited 35 years for the law to punish the men who tried to kill her


The Mahmood family (left to right, seated): Ike, Jumana, Yosra, Nabeel; (standing) Amal, Aidah, Jamal, and Jameel. Someone — Nabeel believes it was his father — used a cigarette to obscure Aidah’s face on the print of the photo.

Anyone who met Aidah Mahmood would instantly realize that she had sustained a horrible injury. Her arms and legs exhibited the peculiar topography of skin grafts; her hands were oddly gnarled, her ears unnaturally small. If anyone dared ask what caused these deformities, she would explain that her father had tried to kill her by setting fire to her when she was 15.

People rarely took her claim seriously, for several reasons. First and foremost was the sheer evilness of the offense — the notion that a man could douse his daughter with gasoline and set her ablaze is difficult for most people to fathom. Second, if a man did commit such an atrocity, he would surely face the full force of the law. Yet Aidah’s father, Ike Mahmood, continued to enjoy life as a prosperous Belleville insurance broker and was never charged with any such crime.

Then there was the matter of Aidah herself. She didn’t behave like the victim of a heinous act. Instead of bemoaning her myriad maladies, she focused on mothering others. Instead of being angry or resentful, she was upbeat.

“She still had a very perky attitude,” says Peggy Ridera, who describes Aidah as “my very best friend” from high school. “Everybody loved her. I don’t know of anybody that didn’t.”

Her youngest brother, Nabeel “Bill” Mahmood, says that Aidah was always cheerful, especially when the analgesic patches she wore kicked in.

“She was a fun person to be around, believe it or not. She had a bubbly attitude, especially when the patches were surging,” he says.

Ken McElroy, the retired Mount Vernon police detective who investigated Aidah’s case, says that the first time he met Aidah, to photograph her injuries, she fretted over his minor illness instead.

“I had the beginning of some blood poisoning, and I was feeling pretty bad. She picked up on that. She offered me food; she wanted to take care of me,” he says. “She had a very good sense of humor. She smiled a lot.”

McElroy and two other detectives built what he calls an airtight case against Aidah’s father and his brother Mike Mahmood. Just as police were preparing to arrest the men, however, prosecutors called them off, citing a technicality.

McElroy dreaded breaking this bad news to Aidah. It was, he says, “the saddest day of my life, the most heartbreaking thing ever.” To his surprise, though, Aidah didn’t get mad. “She told me, ‘I understand,’ and she thanked me repeatedly for doing the work that me and the other detectives had done, and for believing her — and believing in her,” he says. “That was the biggest thing to her; that was really important to her. She thanked me over and over just because I believed her.”

Aidah Mahmood’s unbelievable story begins with her parents’ marriage, in Jerusalem. It was never a happy union. Aidah’s mother, Yosra, would later tell a judge that her husband’s verbal abuse had started on their wedding day and, over the years, escalated into physical abuse.

The couple moved from Jordan to the United States in 1957, settling first in the Chicago area before moving to the small southern-Illinois town of Mount Vernon. They had six children — three boys, three girls. Aidah was the second born.

Her blond hair and hazel eyes puzzled the family; both parents and all of the other kids were dark-haired, brown-eyed, with olive skin. Even worse, Aidah had an adventurous spirit. Her father, though not religious, expected her to conform to his interpretation of the Muslim traditions of total obedience and decorum. Aidah — whose name is pronounced “Ida” — preferred to behave like a typical American kid.

In an effort to restrain her, her father — dubbed “the Big Guy” by his children — would have Aidah strip naked and then tie her up in the basement, leaving her without food and water. Her brother Jameel would sneak food to her and set her free. She would then run away and be gone for several days. Once found, she was punished by being sent back to the basement.

The cycle became so vicious, her brother Nabeel can’t say for sure whether Aidah ran away because she was abused or whether she was abused because she ran away. He thinks it was the former.

The Mahmood family (left to right, seated): Ike, Jumana, Yosra, Nabeel; (standing) Amal, Aidah, Jamal, and Jameel. Someone — Nabeel believes it was his father — used a cigarette to obscure Aidah’s face on the print of the photo.

In 1969, just before Aidah turned 13, her father voluntarily handed her over to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, saying that her behavior was “injurious to [her] own welfare.” She spent the next year and a half in foster care in Salem, Ill., some 25 miles north of Mount Vernon — a period she actually enjoyed, she later told McElroy.

“She stopped running away. She had a little freedom to go to school dances and things that she wasn’t able to go to while she was at home,” he says.

Aidah met Peggy Ridera (then Peggy Beppler) shortly after her father brought her back home. The two girls walked to and from school each day, and Aidah was occasionally allowed to spend time at the Bepplers’ house. Usually, though, she was allowed only an after-school snack consisting of bread, hummus, and juice before being sent up to her second-floor bedroom, where she had to stay until dinner. If she misbehaved, it was back to the basement.

“The basement was only when she was being punished for something severe, things like your children probably do to you every day,” Ridera says. “Things like sassing off. Kids do it, it’s normal, but he’d throw her in the basement. He was a very cruel man.”

Ridera pleaded with her parents to adopt Aidah. “It got that bad,” she says.

Bradley Williams, who went to high school with Aidah, remembers seeing her in the upstairs window whenever he went to his father’s office, which shared a driveway with the Mahmood residence. She would call to him, and he would toss Snickers up to her window.
“I remember getting busted for throwing food up to her and her dad just going ballistic,” Williams says.

Some Saturday nights, he says, he and Aidah would go riding around Mount Vernon with an older girl who owned an orange Mustang convertible. Sharing the backseat, Williams learned a lot about Aidah.

“She was a little wild child, like the rest of us,” he says. “She was experimenting with pot, maybe an acid trip or two. If she was really promiscuous, I wasn’t aware of it and I probably would’ve been — she certainly never gave me any of it! One story or rumor that I heard was that she had a black boyfriend.”

Ridera says that the rumor was true. During their freshman year of high school, Aidah was befriended by Charlie Moore, who was not only black but also significantly older. Aidah knew that she was risking her father’s wrath, but she chose to keep seeing Moore anyway.

“She told me that ‘When my dad finds out that I’m seeing Charlie, he will kill me.’ I thought it was a joke,” Ridera says, “but the more the year passed by I knew it wasn’t no joke. There was something wrong with this man.”

On Nov. 27, 1972, two weeks before her 16th birthday, Aidah Mahmood was burned nearly to death. Despite the fact that the fire occurred around 4 a.m., no one else in her house was injured in any way. In fact, shortly after the fire, her parents and brothers were spotted fully dressed in a luggage-laden car, apparently headed out of town.

It’s difficult to untangle exactly what happened that night. The Mount Vernon Police Department didn’t keep the case file. Aidah’s mother, Yosra, recently gave a statement to police but declined to talk to a reporter. Aidah’s father and his two brothers are currently in Jordan. Aidah’s oldest brother, Jamal — who has power of attorney for their dad — told Illinois Times that the older men in the family wouldn’t want to comment because the incident was “history.”

Aidah’s youngest brother, Nabeel, is eager to discuss what happened, but he was just 11 at the time. All he remembers is that his sisters Amal and Jumana were sent to spend the night with relatives. He recalls being awakened from sleep by his mother, who told him that the house was on fire. Safely outside, he heard his father shout to his uncle, “There she goes! Get her! Let’s run over her!”

Looking back, he says the Big Guy was talking about Aidah, and he can’t explain why he sat mutely in the car.

“What the [expletive] was I doing?” he asks himself. “Why didn’t I do anything?”

Nabeel Mahmood visits the Belleville house where his sister occupied an apartment for more than a decade.

Within a matter of days, Nabeel and his older brothers were on a plane, bound for Saudi Arabia. The trip was a complete surprise — Nabeel’s passport was issued two days after the fire — but it was a prolonged visit. The boys spent the next two years living with their grandparents in Jerusalem because they needed to learn to read and write Arabic and get to know their culture and their heritage, or at least that’s what their parents told them. Decades passed before Nabeel realized that there was a more plausible explanation for the trip.

The most detailed account of the fire comes from McElroy, the detective who, in 2006, launched a reinvestigation of the case. The first time he talked to Aidah, he realized that she had been telling the same unbelievable story since she was 15.

“The amazing thing to me is that her [2006] statement pretty much matched the original statement she gave in 1972. She hadn’t embellished over the years. I mean, it was pretty much dead-on,” McElroy says, “which, to me, added a lot of credibility.”

Aidah told him that the fire happened after she had, yet again, run away. This particular time she had gone as far as Chicago, where the family still had relatives and friends. While in the city, she had gotten high and found herself unable to leave. She told McElroy that a man of Middle Eastern descent showed up at the house where she was staying, took her to the airport, and put her on a plane to St. Louis. When she disembarked, her dad and uncle were waiting for her.

Aidah expected her dad to be angry, yet on the drive to Mount Vernon he didn’t yell at her, he didn’t hit her, and he let her smoke a few cigarettes. When they arrived home, he told her to go upstairs and get some rest. He even gave her a couple of pills to help her sleep.

She awoke to the smell of gasoline and the realization that her bed was on fire.

Aidah ran downstairs but couldn’t get through the door at the bottom of the stairwell; her father and uncle were holding it shut. When she shoved it open, her dad hit her over the head with a glass pitcher and slammed the door on her bare foot. Aidah ran back up the stairs, back through the fire, and escaped through the window at the end of the hall. She broke bones dropping to the driveway but made her way through bushes to reach the house of a neighbor, who called police.

McElroy, who has been featured on the A&E network’s Cold Case Files for solving a decades-old Mount Vernon murder, won’t say whether he initially believed Aidah’s terrible tale.

“Well, uh, I kept an open mind,” he says. “I didn’t not believe her — but it’s not what I believe; it’s what I can prove.”

McElroy and two other detectives — Roger Hayse and Travis Trotter — started with the arson-investigation file kept by the Mount Vernon Fire Department. Using those reports, they interviewed every surviving witness they could find and, to their amazement, found evidence corroborating Aidah’s story.

Long-retired firefighters who had put out the fire at the Mahmood house told the detectives that they smelled gasoline and that the fire was consistent with a gasoline-fueled fire. After extinguishing the blaze, they pulled Aidah’s mattress outside. As soon as the air hit it, the mattress reignited — a sure indication that it had been soaked in gasoline or kerosene.

They found a broken pitcher and part of a foot on the lower steps of the stairwell. On an upstairs windowsill they found blood and bits of flesh. On the exterior of the house, the firefighters found bloody streaks where Aidah had hung from the window and then slid to the ground — a drop McElroy estimates at 17 to 20 feet.

The detectives also located Hallie Fred Lewis, a Mount Vernon Shriner who visited Aidah in the hospital on Nov. 27 and flew with her to the Cincinnati Shriners Hospital burn unit the next day. With Lewis’ help, the cops obtained photographs taken at the hospital to document Aidah’s burns.

The photographs, dated Dec. 5, 1972, are too disturbing for publication. They show a young girl with beautiful eyes staring blankly, a tube snaking from her gaping mouth. Where there should be skin is only red and butter-colored rawness. The photos detail her feet, her legs, her hands with several fingers burned down to nubs.

“You just can’t believe how bad she was burnt,” says Lewis, now 84 years old. “I didn’t think we’d make it to Cincinnati, really.”

A World War II veteran, Lewis had seen severely burned soldiers brought into the hospital in Naples, Italy. The treatment in those days involved gauze and water, he says. The Cincinnati burn unit had a somewhat more sophisticated approach, Lewis recalls: Aidah was met by a team of doctors who used lasers to remove the scorched flesh and then applied pigskin donated by a sausage company to cover the wounds and “draw the burn out.”

Shortly after reinvestigating Aidah Mahmood’s case and learning the crime could not be prosecuted, Ken McElroy retired from the Mount Vernon Police Department. He’s now the police chief of Beckemeyer, Ill.
After almost a year, Aidah was released from the hospital and sent back to a foster-care home in Salem. Her good friend Peggy would drive to Salem to pick Aidah up and take her out, as if nothing had ever happened, even though everything had changed.

“Before, she had long, beautiful, sandy-colored hair and hazel eyes. She had a very nice, pretty body. After? Oh Lord,” Peggy says. “When I picked her up, she had, like, two fingers on one hand. Her ears were burned off. She had no hair, just sprouts. One side of her lips was burned off. She was a mess. I just started crying when I saw her.”

Over the years, the most visible wounds healed. Aidah’s face was reconstructed; her hair grew back; her horrible scars slowly became less noticeable.

Other injuries remained, though. Aidah’s back never fully recovered from the jolt of the drop from the second-floor window. Her feet and legs, unable to sweat, would swell instead. From a blood transfusion she received, she contracted hepatitis C, which damaged her pancreas and led to diabetes. She survived on a smorgasbord of painkillers, including Vicodin, Toradal, and fentanyl transdermal patches.

Some of her pain couldn’t be alleviated with medication. To the dismay of her friend Peggy, Aidah increased her use of recreational drugs and became promiscuous.

“She was kinda wild, doing drugs and sleeping with men she’d just said hi to. She felt unloved. She needed somebody to love her. I understand that — I do! I understood it then,” Peggy says, “but I just couldn’t sit back and watch what she was doing. I loved her like a sister, but we just fell apart.”

The one salve that might have helped — sympathy and support from the justice system — was unavailable to Aidah. No one prosecuted her father and uncle for what they had done to her.

Lewis, the Shriner whom Aidah later credited with saving her life, told Illinois Times that a few days after the fire he was invited to meet with the Mount Vernon police chief, the fire chief, the state fire marshal, and one other man to “decide what happened and everything.” This meeting took place not at some government office but at the Mount Vernon Holiday Inn.

“They never could decide what they wanted to do about it,” Lewis says before changing the subject. “That was their business. I didn’t pursue it anymore. The chief of police ought to know what he’s doing.”

He is the only surviving member of the group that met, and he believes Aidah’s story. He remembers being stunned at her dad’s “very sarcastic” attitude when they met at the Mount Vernon hospital, initially spurning the Shriner’s offer to transport Aidah to the Cincinnati burn center. That attitude convinced Lewis that Aidah’s father and uncle had conspired to set her on fire in an attempt to kill her.

“Oh yeah, I believe they did it. Sure I do,” he says. “They’re Arab. They live a different life than what we do.”

However, the man who could have prosecuted the Mahmood men refuses to acknowledge that a crime occurred. Don Irvin, who was Jefferson County state’s attorney in 1972, refers to Aidah as “the alleged victim” and suggests that she set fire to herself as a way to “gain sympathy.” He says that Aidah gave conflicting and contradictory statements, at times even insisting that she didn’t want her father prosecuted, possibly as a result of pressure from other family members who were unwilling to see their breadwinner go to prison. Furthermore, he says, the Mahmood men’s anticipated defense — that Aidah had violated their moral code — would have to be explored in open court, opening up the possibility that jurors would lose sympathy for Aidah.

“Whatever was supposed to be the motive, you’d have to explain to the jury why a daddy or uncle wanted to burn her up, and we didn’t know where that was going. We don’t know to what extent she might want to admit that she had engaged in immoral conduct,” Irvin says.

“Everybody was sorry that she had a problem in the family, and everybody was sorry she was burned, but nobody wanted her to talk about that episode,” Irvin recalls. “There were people who wanted her to just leave this alone. The damage had been done.”

Aidah never stopped seeking justice, but she learned not to expect any, either. She eventually settled in Belleville, living in an apartment that was part of a carved-up old house. She was close enough to her relatives to be able to help her elderly mother take care of her sisters (Jumana disabled by mental illness, Amal by developmental delays), and get some help from her brother Nabeel. She kept her distance from her father and uncle and remained terrified of them.

She became, Nabeel says, the caretaker of the family.

In August 2005, Aidah took her mother to the St. Clair County courts to seek an order of protection against the Big Guy after he pushed Yosra down the stairs. The application, written in Aidah’s hand but her mother’s voice (Yosra never received a formal education and cannot write well in English) lists several incidents that brought police to the Mahmood home — the time he threw a knife and knife sharpener at Yosra, the time he hit Amal hard enough to cause her arm to swell, the time he locked Yosra in the basement, the time he “pounded [Yosra] in the face with his fist.”

“Ike’s behavior has always been screaming at the children — as soon as he walks in the door, he has chased me to hit me to [sic] many times to count — threatening us, does not allow to have any money, any freedoms or peace,” she wrote.

On the third page of comments, there’s this three-line entry: “In 1972, Ike and his brother pour gasoline on our 15 yrs daughter and set her on fire.”

This application was routed through the Renee Center, a special project of the Violence Prevention Center of Southwestern Illinois for a three-county area in southern Illinois. A domestic violence victims’ advocate named Penny (for safety reasons, workers at the Renee Center aren’t allowed to give their surnames) ended up handling the Mahmood case, which meant spending a lot of time talking to Aidah.

Aidah didn’t come seeking help for herself; she came seeking safety for her mother and sisters.

“She advocated for all the members of her family,” Penny says. “She was the strength of the family. Everyone depended on Aidah to take care of everything, and she did.”

Penny realized that Aidah, as a victim of domestic violence herself, certainly qualified for any services the Renee Center could offer. An intercounty network of victims’ advocates eventually brought her ancient 1972 case to McElroy in May 2006.

McElroy’s investigation was Aidah’s closest brush with justice. The grand jury had delivered its true bill, the Mount Vernon cops had coordinated with the Belleville police to arrest both Mahmood men simultaneously, and Aidah had arranged to go into hiding.

At the last minute, prosecutors realized that they were bound by the 1972 law, which set forth a two-year statute of limitations on attempted murder — a development McElroy calls “one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever experienced as a police officer.”

He explored the options of arson and aggravated arson, even found an attorney to try to file a civil suit. Nothing worked. Soon after, he retired from MVPD and took a job as the chief of police in tiny Beckemeyer, Ill., where his department keeps a surveillance camera trained on a Dumpster to catch farmers dropping off trash without permission. It’s not exciting, but it suits him for now.

“Something had to give,” he says. “I had to go to Mayberry, where I’m watching a Dumpster instead of handing out bad news to sweet women who really deserve justice.”

Penny says that justice — not revenge — is all Aidah ever wanted. “She believed in God,” Penny says. “Therefore revenge was not a goal of hers.”

Aidah’s brother Nabeel believes he knows what the Big Guy would say if anybody ever asked him why he burned Aidah. “He would probably say that Arabian girls can’t do what they want to; they’ve got to be secluded,” he says. “This wouldn’t be questioned overseas. A daughter gets out of line — that’s the penalty.”

Yet, Nabeel says, he never sees his father at the local mosque, where he and his mother and Aidah would pray every Friday. Aidah, ironically, embraced her Muslim heritage in recent years, washing, donning her veil, and praying five times every day.

On June 4, Aidah chatted on the phone with Nabeel’s roommate, Michael Munoz, who had become one of her closest friends. Around 9 p.m., she hung up to prepare for prayers. During the night she fell ill and dialed 911. She died in the emergency room at 1:47 a.m. The coroner’s certificate lists ventricular fibrillation as the cause of death.

In accordance with her religion, Aidah was buried before sundown on the day she died. No obituary was published, so the news of her death spread slowly, carried only by word of mouth.

McElroy learned of Aidah’s death from a reporter.

“There’s no justice this woman will ever have, except in the hereafter,” he says.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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