Man fled before trial in teen girl's killing; US prosecutor thinks Saudi Arabia helped him
By ELI ROSENBERG | The Washington Post | Published: December 29, 2018
Shawn Overstreet, a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, received the alert by surprise at the end of a weekend.
The GPS device worn by a 21-year-old student awaiting a trial on a manslaughter charge had been cut near a sand and gravel facility in town.
The student, Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, a Saudi Arabian national living in the United States on a government scholarship, had asked the sheriff's deputy who was monitoring him on supervised house arrest if he could go to the community college he was attending to study for upcoming exams. She had said yes.
Now she was reaching out to Overstreet to let him know what had happened. Overstreet's first thought was that Noorah had killed himself.
But a search of the site with a cadaver dog had found only the monitoring device. And surveillance footage that investigators pulled from nearby showed a black SUV driving up a street near the quarry and then leaving soon afterward, at the time the bracelet was cut, Overstreet said.
About a year later, the Saudi government confirmed what Overstreet had feared, that Noorah had made it out of the United States and back to Saudi Arabia, despite having no passport, Overstreet said. Overstreet has developed a working theory: Noorah escaped with the help of the Saudi government.
The unusual case has drawn wide attention since it was reported by the Oregonian this week. Amid simmering international anger over the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October, Noorah's case, if the Saudi connection is proved, would be another illustration of the impunity with which Saudi Arabia seems to act around the world.
"I've had people cut their GPS bracelets; that happens all the time, a pair of scissors," Overstreet said. "But those are people that stick around, they don't really go anywhere. . . . I've never had a foreign individual commit such a heinous crime and then take off."
The case began on a hot summer day in August 2016 when a 15-year-old girl, Fallon Smart, was struck by a speeding car as she crossed the street in a densely populated part of Portland. Overstreet said that investigators determined the car was moving at 71 mph about a block away from the crash, and a crash reconstruction put the speed at the time of impact at 55 to 60 mph.
The car had been moving through traffic on the street, which has a 25 mph speed limit, in the middle turn lane, Overstreet said. Noorah was charged as the driver.
Smart was struck by the right passenger side of the car; her head hit the windshield.
"It was a severe impact," Overstreet said. "It broke the windshield in. Noorah had a passenger and that guy had blood and glass [on him]. She was thrown quite a distance."
Fallon's mother had been in the area to pick her up, and Fallon was crossing the street from a bubble tea shop to meet her.
The car sped off after the impact, but its license plate had fell off at the scene, Overstreet said. The car returned to the scene, where Noorah was questioned by police.
His demeanor disturbed officers and witnesses at the scene, according to Overstreet, who was summoned to the scene.
"He stopped and got out and didn't walk up to where Fallon was in the road. And then somebody yelled at him, and all he said was, 'Is she dead?' And the woman who was yelling at him basically said, 'Yes, you idiot, you killed her,' and he stood there," Overstreet said. "When I got there, I saw him, and I was very bothered by his demeanor, just 'cause he was like, 'OK, can I go home now?'"
Noorah was charged with manslaughter, hit-and-run and reckless driving. His bail was initially set at around $250,000, meaning he could get out after posting 10 percent, or about $25,000, under Oregon laws on pretrial release. But a judge later raised the bail to about $1 million. Overstreet said he was still concerned about Noorah as a flight risk; the Saudi government had put up the bail money, Overstreet said.
"Shortly after that was done, the attorneys showed up with a $100,000 check from the Saudi government," Overstreet said. "I saw that check and I thought, 'Uh oh, here we go; he's going to be gone.' The defense attorney assured me that he's a good kid and he's going to stick around, but nonetheless, I asked the judge to put him on GPS monitoring. He was confined to his home and only allowed to go to mosque and to school."
Noorah's passport was also confiscated, Overstreet said.
Overstreet said the financial transaction for Noorah's bail has added to his suspicions.
The Saudi government had given the money to Noorah, whose attorney had deposited the check in a client trust account and then written a check on his behalf, Overstreet said. That made him, and not Saudi Arabia, ultimately responsible for the remainder of the bail that is now owed, about $900,000.
"I thought that was a sneaky move to ensure they wouldn't have to pay for the rest," Overstreet said.
The charge of first-degree manslaughter that Noorah faced meant that prosecutors believed Noorah had acted with "extreme indifference to the value of human life." If he was convicted on the charge, he would have faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison.
Prosecutors offered Noorah a deal: plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter for a mandatory minimum sentence of six years and three months.
Overstreet said he thinks this was a turning point, when it might have become clear that Noorah was likely to face significant prison time.
He thinks his office's case was robust; prosecutors had 20 eyewitnesses from some 50 people who were in the area at the time of the accident, as well as video evidence, he said.
"I think they were waiting to see what would happen," Overstreet said of the Saudi government.
Noorah had been violation-free for the many months he was on release as the case moved toward trial in June 2017, Overstreet said. And that is why the sheriff's deputy granted him permission to study outside of his home two weeks before the trial. He was supposed to be monitored 24 hours a day, but the supervisor was apparently out of town and didn't get the alert until the next day, Overstreet said.
Overstreet said he doesn't have any definitive evidence that Saudi officials helped Noorah escape.
Investigators lost track of the SUV on video at some point after it left the quarry. The road on which it was traveling, Division Street, connects directly with Interstate 205, which heads to Portland's airport to the north.
U.S. marshals have traced the SUV's origin to the airport, Aaron Pfenning, a deputy in Oregon, told The Washington Post. He said the Marshals Service thinks it is connected to a car service or rental company.
Noorah was back in Saudi Arabia seven days after the day the bracelet was cut, Pfenning said.
But officials didn't know that at the time. It was only about a year after Noorah's June 2017 disappearance that Saudi officials told investigators with the Department of Homeland Security, which had made contact with them, that he was back in his home country, Pfenning said.
"All other requests for more info to Saudi officials have gone unanswered," he said.
Overstreet said he developed his theory after the disclosure from Saudi Arabia. He says he believes that Noorah was issued a new passport with a different name.
Pfenning said the marshals think Noorah boarded a flight back to Saudi Arabia but do not know how. Overstreet said investigators have checked airport records for commercial and private flights but found no indication that Noorah passed through afterward.
"There's no way in my mind that Noorah could have got this orchestrated, and got himself back to Saudi Arabia with his resources," he said. "He doesn't have any."
After Noorah disappeared, investigators found a packed bag at the house of the family with which he had been staying, Overstreet said.
Noorah had been receiving an $1,800-per-month government stipend as he lived with the family. Overstreet said he was told by Noorah's defense attorney that his mother was a teacher and his father worked with a tractor trailer.
"I'm assuming this guy has money and access to money in Saudi," Overstreet said. "Whether they were connected beyond the parents I don't know. We know that Noorah did not have a lot of money. I think there was $80 in his account."
Amos Guiora, a professor at the University of Utah and an expert on national security and international law, said the case was unusual but not especially surprising.
"In the context of international law or sovereignty, yes, this is pretty offensive," he said. "Is it offensive enough for [Jared] Kushner to call the crown prince? Probably not."
He noted the old news that dozens of well-connected Saudis had fled the United States on chartered flights in the days after 9/11.
Norms typically dictate that countries respect each other's judicial systems, Guiora said, "but for these kinds of regimes which don't really understand the rule of law and have a deep mistrust of our judicial system, if it's important for their own domestic reasons, I don't find anything shocking about this at all."
A statement from the Saudi government distributed by an embassy spokesman said it was Saudi policy to post bail for citizens who were incarcerated in the United States when they sought that help.
The embassy declined to answer questions about whether government officials were involved with Noorah's escape, saying only that "no travel document was issued by the Embassy or Consulate for Mr. Noorah."
Noorah had been studying in Portland since 2014, the Oregonian reported.
Terri Stanford, who hosted Noorah in her home, told reporter Shane Dixon Kavanaugh that Noorah was one of the kindest people she had ever met. She said he appeared to suffer tremendously after being charged, and had stopped eating and sleeping and rarely left his room.
"He really did get to a point where he couldn't function," Stanford said. "I thought there was no way he was going to survive jail."
Ginger Mooney, the defense lawyer who represented Noorah, declined to comment or provide any on-the-record information on the case, citing privileged communications with a client.
The FBI declined to comment on the case. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
R. Brendan Dummigan, a lawyer who represents Smart's mother, Fawn Lengvenis, in a lawsuit filed against Noorah, said the family may file a lawsuit against the government of Saudi Arabia.
For Overstreet, the case remains a sore spot in his career as a prosecutor.
He described the agony of Smart's family members as they waited through the ups and downs of the case - discussions over a potential plea deal, then later a potential trial - only to hear that Noorah had fled.
"It is the case I think about every day," Overstreet said. "This case stands out so much because of the injustice, because of the thing that this guy could get bailed out."
Noorah remains an escaped fugitive who is sought by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Overstreet is not hopeful about his chances of seeing Noorah in a U.S. courtroom any time soon. The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia.
"Nothing is going to happen to him. He can just go live his life, and what that does to the family," he said. "I think they're re-victimized on a daily basis."