SANTA ANA (AP) — When she was a college freshman, Shayona Dhanak told her Muslim boyfriend she was splitting with him because of her devout Hindu family’s opposition. Two months later, her father and sister were killed, her mother attacked and the family’s Southern California home doused with gasoline and set on fire.
Prosecutors say then-22-year-old Iftekhar Murtaza plotted and carried out the gory killings after the couple’s 2007 breakup, hoping it would send Dhanak running back to his arms.
Six years later, Murtaza will stand trial on murder and attempted murder charges in the case for which one of his friends has already been sentenced to life in prison. If convicted, Murtaza could face the death penalty.
Jury selection in the often-delayed trial is underway. Opening statements could come as early as Tuesday.
The case led investigators on a hunt for clues from the inferno at the Dhanaks’ home to burning bodies in an Irvine park to an Arizona airport where Murtaza planned to take a flight to Bangladesh until he was arrested.
In March 2007, Dhanak, then an 18-year-old student at University of California, Irvine, broke up with Murtaza saying her family disapproved of the relationship because of religious differences. Murtaza, who lived in a Los Angeles suburb, thought if he got rid of the family she would reunite with him, according to prosecutors.
Murtaza enlisted a friend to try to hire a hitman to kill the family. But when Dhanak, who lived in a campus dorm, was going to start dating someone else, Murtaza called another friend and offered him $30,000 to help carry out the murders, prosecutors have said.
That night, the family’s Anaheim Hills home was torched. Dhanak’s mother, Leela, was found beaten and unconscious in a neighbor’s yard. Five hours later, the bodies of Dhanak’s father, Jay, and 20-year-old sister, Karishma, were found stabbed and burning in a brush fire in a park about 20 miles away in Irvine.
After the killings, Murtaza was interviewed by police. Several days later, he was arrested at the airport in Phoenix.
Several attempts by the Associated Press to interview Murtaza’s lawyers were not successful.
In a 2007 jail interview, Murtaza told the Orange County Register he couldn’t commit such a ruthless crime and extended his sympathy to Dhanak’s family. “Everyone that knows me knows I couldn’t be capable of such a heinous crime,” he told the newspaper.
Murtaza is charged with two counts of murder with special circumstances of burglary and kidnapping, attempted murder and conspiracy. His trial has been postponed several times amid changes in defense attorneys.
“We’re just glad to finally be able to present this to the community,” said Howard Gundy, senior deputy district attorney for Orange County. “It’s been a long, slow march to justice.”
Prosecutors say Murtaza was aided in planning the murders by his friend, Vitaliy Krasnoperov, over detailed online chats. After Krasnoperov failed to produce a hitman, Murtaza called up childhood friend Charles Murphy Jr. and offered to pay him for his assistance, prosecutors say.
Murphy was convicted of the murders last year in his third trial after one jury deadlocked and another was dismissed in a mistrial. He is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 25.
Krasnoperov was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison.