Haidar “Harry” Abushaqra called his home in Ellington at about 8 p.m. on Dec. 7, 2011, to let his wife and six children know he would be home in 20 minutes. They had no reason to doubt him.
Abushaqra, 41, had stopped by the nondescript used car lot building he owned and previously operated in Manchester to pick up a $7,000 rent payment from two mechanics who were working there.
Later that evening, Kevin O’Brien, Abushaqra’s Manchester lawyer, got a worried call from Abushaqra’s wife. “It was a total shock to me,” said O’Brien. “The night he disappeared, his wife called me and said, ‘Do you know where Harry is?’ I said, “What are you talking about!”
And so begins the mysterious saga of Harry Abushaqra, a tale that involves cars sales, larceny arrests, sealed court files, a worried bail bonds company, attorneys, prosecutors and, possibly, federal authorities. The only thing for certain is that, as of late last week, the whereabouts of the 5-foot-6-inch, 205-pound man of Jordanian heritage are still unknown and that he is simultaneously listed on the Manchester Police Department’s web site as “missing” and “most wanted.”
His family hopes for the best — and fears the worst. “He would never run away, leaving his family,” said his, niece Dana Hamed, a University of Illinois junior majoring in biology and psychology, who has actively pressed the search. “We just want to know if he’s alive or dead. We feel that he’s alive.”
Not long before he disappeared, Abushaqra had landed a new job, selling Lexus luxury cars at East Hartford’s Hoffman Autos.
Attorney O’Brien had visited Abushaqra at the dealership. “He was amazingly enthusiastic about the job, and wished he’d thought of it earlier,” O’Brien recalled. A white board that tallied sales showed Abushaqra was “four, five or six times higher than any other salesman. The board wasn’t big enough to show all his sales. They had to add on to the board for him.”
And so things seemed to be looking up for Harry, after a rough patch. For the previous months, O’Brien had been working to resolve half a dozen larceny charges that Abushaqra faced for allegedly financing cars at his Manchester used car lot more than once with different banks. He was arrested for larceny for three of those, according to court records, and a fourth arrest occurred after he allegedly took a deposit from a customer and failed to returned it.
Two more larceny arrests stemmed from charges filed by a used car auto auction in East Windsor, which claimed Abushaqra misled them about sales. The charges came one by one, so he had to stump up about $100,000 in bail each time to stay out of jail.
O’Brien was making good progress. He argued the auction and deposit cases were basically civil claims, being filed as criminal matters for leverage, and the attorney was negotiating with the banks on the other three matters to make restitution. Harry’s life seemed to be improving – until he mysteriously vanished, his cell phone untraceable after 8:24 p.m. that winter night.
The next day, Manchester police found Abushaqra’s automobile, with its keys, at the Manchester auto dealership, with no signs of foul play. The mechanics refused to answer questions from police, or take lie detector tests. The cops were unable to make much progress. About a week after Abushaqra’s disappearance, they brought in cadaver dogs, but found nothing.
In early January, local family members, and more from Chicago, staged a rally at the Manchester car lot to drum up help finding the missing man.
At one of his appearance in Manchester Superior Court, Abushaqra had to surrender his passport to the clerk. Nevertheless, Manchester police began to speculate that he had fled to Jordan, where he had grown up. His family vehemently rejects this theory. Abushaqra’s wife agreed to take a polygraph test, passing it, and putting to rest speculation that she secretly knew where he was.
His family and friends issued YouTube videos and made a social media page — Facebook.com/findhaidar — seeking information of his whereabouts. He is the father of 2-year old quadruplets, and has a 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.
“I see the pain in their eyes now, when they see their cousins who still have their fathers,” said Dana Hamed, the missing man’s niece. “My uncle would never run away from his family.”
Adding another element of drama, eight days after Abushaqra disappeared, the Justice Department launched a multi-state sweep with the Drug Enforcement Administration, making asset seizures at 30 used car dealerships across the country, from Connecticut to Oklahoma. The federal authorities alleged in the warrant that Lebanese funds were used to buy and ship used cars in Africa to sell in a complex money-laundering and drug trafficking scheme to benefit the terrorist organization Hezbollah.
“My uncle knew a lot of those [car dealers], but he definitely had nothing to do with that [and] would never ever do anything like that,” said Hamed. “One of the reasons is he’s Palestinian by birth, and that whole group is Lebanese. We don’t support terrorism, and Hezbollah terrorism, we don’t support them…
“So either my uncle’s in protective custody, or he’s detained,” Hamed said. “It’s one or the other. I honestly do not believe that he is dead.”
Just three weeks after Abushaqra vanished, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law. It purports to allow indefinite military detention without charge or trial, by an order of the president. The American Civil Liberties Union’s position is that any such use of presidential power would be unconstitutional and illegal. Hamed said the ACLU has declined, in a letter, to take up Abushaqra’s cause, saying his constitutional rights have not been violated.
With or without secret war-on-terror detentions, the scope of the car dealer asset seizure sweep was ambitious. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, sought more than $480 million from Lebanese banks and holding companies that allegedly facilitated the scheme. It involved using Lebanese funds to buy cars in the U.S., shipping them to coastal West African countries, and funneling the proceeds of car and drug sales back to Lebanon to benefit Hezbollah.
Car dealerships in Vernon, East Windsor and New Britain were named in the civil seizure action, which did not name or implicate Abushaqra in any manner. The largest Connecticut dealership was MGM Global Trading LLC in South Windsor, and the 66-page complaint alleged that more than ten financial institutions illegally wired it a total of $33,413,475.
On Feb. 1, 2012, Manchester Superior Court Judge Carl Taylor reacted to Abushaqra’s failure to appear on his larceny and other charges by calling the original bonds and raising the bond amount to $6 million, or $1 million on each count — unusually high for nonviolent offenses.
Attorney Ryan Barry, whose Manchester law offices are next to O’Brien’s, is a former co-chair of the state legislature’s Banks Committee. Barry’s client, Capitol Bail Bonds, held $450,000 in bonds guaranteeing Abushagra’s appearance. If it could not get an extension of the time left to deliver Abushaqra to court, it would be forced to pay $225,000 to the state of Connecticut.
On behalf of Capitol Bail Bonds, Barry wrote to U.S. Attorney David Fein, the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security, and the FBI, for some assurance that Abushaqra is alive, possibly in federal custody. Barry has declined to say in open court what he has learned from the federal agencies In a February court appearance, Barry had told Judge Taylor that Abushaqra “may be in a very safe place, but he can’t be located now.”
On July 31, Barry was back before the judge, asking for more time to produce Abushaqra. At the hearing, Barry said he needed to file his arguments under seal. “All we’re trying to do is seal the memo in support of the motion to stay bond forfeiture,” Barry said at the hearing. He said sealing the document would “preserve an interest which overrides the public’s interest in viewing such materials.”
“How can I seal anything these days?” Judge Taylor replied, referring to the state court system’s emphasis on open proceedings following revelations that in the early 2000s files had been routinely sealed.
Still, he agreed to let Barry “lodge” his sealed brief with the court, pending a public hearing on whether the document should be officially sealed. The hearing is set for Sept. 26.
Judge Taylor acknowledged that he and Barry and Assistant State’s Attorney Anthony Spinella “have had an opportunity to discuss aspects of this matter outside the court.” He made an oblique reference, possibly to one of several federal agencies the bail bond company has been pressing for answers.
The obstacle, said the judge, is, “there’s nothing in writing from that other party shall we say who’s the sort of unseen — the unseen party in these proceedings shall we say.”
Supreme Court Writ
On Aug. 3, in another attempt to win more time, Barry filed a writ of error with the state Supreme Court. He is seeking a ruling that trial court judge Taylor actually had the authority to extend the stay of bond forfeiture at his discretion. A briefing schedule for that matter has not been set.
A major part of Barry’s argument will be that Judge Taylor actually exercised discretion in the Sept. 13, 2011 case of a Jamaican defendant, Courtney Christopher Simms, who was granted a 120-day extension of his bond forfeiture.
Barry is seeking a ruling that he can present the bond company’s arguments in Superior Court — and gain more time — through a sealed brief, presumably to protect the privacy and safety of Abushaqra and his family.
Barry declined to make any comment on the case. “I can’t,” he said. “That’s why it has to be filed under seal.” •