Not the Land of Opportunity she expected: An Iranian refugee loses her father in a taxicab robbery
When it comes to crime and immigration, I usually hear about immigrants coming to the United States and committing crimes. To take a look at the other side of this equation, I decided to explore the story of an immigrant family whose taxicab-driving father was allegedly killed by Americans last year.
On the summer evening before Lida Vatanpour headed for an organic chemistry make-up exam at the University of Texas at Dallas, the 29-year-old Iranian with reddish-highlighted black hair, dark eyes and a pretty smile called her father.
As usual, the attentive husband and father of two sons and two daughters picked up the phone. It was a quick call—just to let her dad know she would be taking an exam and would call him afterward. That July 2 call at 7:20 p.m. was the last time Lida would hear her father’s voice.
Hooshang Vatanpour, 56, had picked up two young men near a Dallas bus station. Noah Robert Whitehead, 23, and William “Billy” Kirk Stephens, 22, who lived in the Dallas area, asked the driver to take them to Wichita Falls, which was at least 2.5 hours away. Hooshang’s last check-in to his cab company was at 7:45 p.m.
Normally, Hooshang would use his limited English to engage his clients in friendly conversation. Having fled from Iran in 2003 due to religious persecution because of his membership in the Baha’i Faith, he would often give out cards with Baha’i principles or show passengers a book with photos of Baha’i temples from around the world.
But according to Lida, her father had picked up two men bent on stealing money to pay for drugs.
A Violent Taxi Ride
Stephens and Whitehead forced Hooshang to stop at a convenience store so that Stephens could purchase some beer, according to Lida. Surveillance cameras captured Stephens’s face and the blue taxi van in the parking lot.
Back on the road, Hooshang slowed the van at a stop sign. It isn’t clear who did what, but a Denton County sheriff’s affidavit states that a 32-ounce beer bottle was shattered over Hooshang’s head.
“One of them pushed him over and started driving,” said Sherriff’s Investigator Larry Kish in a Denton Record-Chronicle article.
As the three were driving through a remote area of Denton County, Hooshang was stabbed in the chest and his throat was cut. Blood spilled on the front and back seats. The van veered off the road and stopped at an oil well site.
Hooshang’s credit cards and cash were taken, and his body dragged from the van and dumped on the ground. Whitehead called Mariesha Ohlfs, a 32-year-old who had recently moved to Texas from Wisconsin. She brought a shovel and some gasoline.
Hooshang’s body was set on fire. Then the perpetrators drove the taxi van about a mile away. The van plowed through a fence, its front license plate stuck to a collapsed gate. Leaving all of the van’s doors open, the trio sped away from the scene in the car Ohlfs had arrived in.
Around 9 p.m., firefighters from the city of Justin were putting out a brush fire when they discovered Hooshang’s body.
A Family’s Worry
At the same time the firefighters made their discovery, Lida had finished her exam and saw she had many missed calls from her younger brother. Her dad had not been answering his phone, and he was worried.
“I called my dad maybe 50 times,” Lida said. “He knows I get worried real quick. I was freaking out. I was afraid he had gotten into an accident.”
Lida and her brothers, ages 17 and 24 at the time, were the only ones at home that night. Her mother was out of the country, and her 30-year-old sister was a college student in Ohio.
“I was playing the mom role,” Lida said about the responsibility she started to feel that night.
The siblings decided to call the Dallas Police Department, which didn’t have any information for them. At 11:30 p.m., police told Lida that her father’s van had been located in Denton County, but that she couldn’t go to that location because it would contaminate the crime scene. She was also told that police were searching for her father.
“I was almost sure he had been robbed,” Lida said, adding it was then when she and her brothers, two uncles and a cousin decided to wait at the Denton Police Station.
At 2 a.m., a detective approached Hooshang’s anxious family and asked which of them was a family member.
“Everybody was in shock so they couldn’t speak,” Lida said. “Finally, I made myself say, ‘I’m his daughter.’”
When the detective told her it was homicide, Lida “lost it.”
After receiving the news, Lida started to make the phone calls to her mother, sister, uncles and her father’s friends. She bought a casket and worked with local Baha’is to plan a funeral service for the following Monday.
“I had to deal with the situation right then and there,” she said. “ I had to be strong for everyone. I had to take care of all of these people.”
Before the night her dad was killed, Lida said she would never have imagined being able to function while sustaining such pain.
While Lida and her family were waiting and receiving the bad news, local police departments were cooperating to figure out who had robbed and killed Hooshang. In recent days before that night’s incident, taxicab drivers in Ft. Worth and Dallas had been robbed, but unharmed. Police reviewed surveillance tape of a man who had used one of those cabdrivers’ stolen credit cards at a convenience store.
Tracing the broken beer bottle left in the taxi van to a different convenience store nearest that night’s crime scene, police found surveillance footage of the same man—Billy Stephens. A bloodhound followed a scent to Stephens’s nearby neighborhood.
Police found Stephens at someone else’s home and interviewed him. According to a sheriff’s affidavit, he confessed to participating in the crime. During that same July 4 weekend, Ohlfs and Whitehead were taken into custody.
Stephens and Whitehead were charged with capital murder, and Ohlfs was charged with aggravated assault.
Firm in His Faith
By Monday, July 6, Lida was doing her best to host the more than 500 people and TV news crews at her father’s funeral.
It was an ironic and tragic ending to a life that had been beset for so many years by religious persecution. Harrassment and lack of opportunities due to their membership in the Baha’i Faith were the reasons Hooshang and his family had migrated to the United States from Iran between 2002 and 2003.
According to its U.S. Web site, the Baha’i Faith is an independent world religion that views humanity as one single race and aims to unite humanity into one global society. Baha’u’llah (1817-1892), the founder, is recognized as the most recent in a line of divine messengers that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad. There are 300,000 Baha’is in Iran; 170,000 in the United States; and more than 5 million worldwide.
Before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Hooshang had been an Iranian Airforce helicopter pilot. But afterward, he came to a spiritual crossroads.
“He had a choice to convert to be a Muslim or lose his job,” Lida said of the Iranian government’s requirement to register one’s religion. “He was forced to quit his job.”
The Iranian constitution only recognizes Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Anyone filling out official paperwork has to declare himself or herself as a member of one of these religions or is not permitted to hold a government job.
Hooshang’s friends were surprised he would leave his job because he had a wife and two young children to support.
“He was a pilot,” Lida said. “That was all he knew. He would say, ‘You just keep your faith and everything will fall into place.’”
To make ends meet, Hooshang did a variety of jobs and had his own business making aluminum windows and doors.
“As much as I think I’m a good Baha’i, I don’t know if I would make the same decision as he did,” Lida said. “It was a hard test. They took his money. They took his retirement account. It happened many times he would start over. But he would make it. It’s stunning when I think about it now. His faith was something he would not give a second thought.”
Memories of Her Father
Before that disastrous summer night, before his 12-to-14-hour days as a Dallas taxicab driver, Hooshang would organize 7-hour road trips to the beach for 20 of his friends and relatives. Four-car caravans would drive from the Iranian capital city of Tehran to the Caspian Sea.
During those car rides along bumpy roads, Hooshang would make plans for a barbecue, talk, crack jokes, sing, and play games with his family.
“He always had a crazy way of making other people laugh,” Lida said. “You know how some people are just fun? He had had his own way of connecting with [his children] even during those teenager times.”
‘I really owe my education to my dad.’
Lida and her father also bonded during the 45 minutes it took for him to drive from their home in the suburbs to Tehran where her college classes were. Because Baha’is are not allowed to attend university in Iran, Lida attended the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education.
Not only does the Iranian government deny Baha’i Institute graduates government jobs and admission to graduate school, it also creates oppressive conditions in the classroom.
According to the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education Web site, its faculty and students “have been forced to operate under the radar in discreet locations, have been subject to numerous arrests, periodic raids, mass confiscation of school equipment (photocopiers, faxes, computers and other materials) and general harassment.”
Lida recalls the hopelessness and lack of motivation she felt when raids resulted in instructors and books being taken while she took her exams. She would ask her father what the point of attending a Baha’i university was when nobody would recognize her diploma.
“Education is for your own good,” was her father’s response. “Life is bigger than just having a job. You never quit.”
“That’s what stuck with me,” said Lida, who was 18 course hours short of a psychology degree when she left Iran. “I really owe my education to my dad.”
When she arrived in Allen, Tex., in 2002, she was unable to find a local university that accepted her past college coursework, so she had to start over on her degree. In December 2009, she graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. Currently a certified optician, Lida has tentative plans to train as a physician’s assistant.
Touching Others’ Lives
In the days following Hooshang’s death, his family’s home was “covered in plants and flowers upstairs and downstairs.” For a month, 30 to 60 people would gather regularly in the home to say prayers. People who heard the story on the news sent cards, flowers and good wishes. Lida sent 150 thank-you notes to people she had never met.
“My dad touched many individuals’ hearts,” Lida said. “Not that it makes the pain go away, but it gives you comfort that there are some good people out there.”
One of the most meaningful results of her father’s well-publicized death is that more people have learned about the Baha’i Faith, Lida said. Teaching people about his religion was a dream Hooshang had, but he felt limited due to his lack of English language skills.
“The best car, house, job would not measure up to the things he has fulfilled the way he died,” Lida said. “My dad’s life served its purpose. I think my dad is happy that he was able to teach the [Baha’i Faith], not by him, but by his story. I should be happy for that.”
Consequences for the Perpetrators
However much Lida reflects on the beauty of the life of a man she says had a heart so big, it could “fit everyone in the world,” she also has her sight set on justice.
Noting that in her native Iran, the trio involved in her dad’s death would have already gotten a swift, harsh punishment, Lida laments the judicial delay and penalties the suspects face.
If convicted of capital murder, Stephens and Whitehead may be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. The Denton County District Attorney’s Office will not pursue the death penalty and will not provide an explanation because the reasons encompass facts that can’t be discussed before the trials end. A spokesperson from the office said that the district attorney met with Hooshang’s family and discussed the death penalty with them.
“The reason I want the death penalty is we need to draw a line as a society,” Lida said, adding that her religion has no official position on the death penalty.
“It’s not about revenge. It’s about the right thing to do. We are too cautious. We apply everything under the flag of freedom. We are protective of the people we’re not supposed to be protective of. There have to be some boundaries. If it was an accident, that’s a different story.”
Lida claims what happened to her father is “more than a robbery that went bad” because Stephens and Whitehead had the “guts” to cut Hooshang’s throat, stab him multiple times and set his body on fire. A dentist had to identify Hooshang’s body.
If she could speak to the men who killed her father, she would say, “How could you do such a thing to another person? If you needed the money so bad, you could just take the money and go.”
Although the district attorney’s office is not classifying the murder as a hate crime, Lida has not ruled out the possibility. “They probably thought he was a terrorist,” she said, adding that she faces daily discrimination based on her complexion and accent.
“If my dad was American, it would be a whole different ball game. If my dad could speak better English, it would have made a difference at the crime scene.”
Attorneys for Stephens and Whitehead declined to comment for this story because the cases are still pending. Ohlfs’ attorney did not respond to a phone call.
What also would have made a difference at the crime scene was if a judge hadn’t decided to release Whitehead from jail a month prior to Hooshang’s death, said Lida. Whitehead was sentenced to 90 days in jail and eight years of probation. His criminal records show he was convicted of assaulting three police officers in 2008.
“Given his criminal history at that time and the nature of the case, assaults [and] the severity, the outcome wasn’t unusual at all,” said Jamie Beck, first assistant criminal district attorney for Denton County, speaking of Whitehead’s release from jail.
“If this person was in jail, this would not have happened to my family,” Lida said. Stephens also had a criminal history that included theft, assault and burglary of a vehicle.
Whitehead’s trial is the earliest, currently scheduled for November 15. Lida predicts she will have to wait three years for a verdict. “How is that supposed to help a family heal?” she asked.
Land of Opportunity
Lida has mixed feelings about living as an immigrant in the United States.
“I’m not going to disregard everything that’s been offered to me. I like that I can go to school. I can talk about my religion.”
“It’s supposed to be the Land of Opportunity. I came here with so much hope that it would be better. Everything is just shattered. Opportunities are not there anymore.”
Lida wishes she had the opportunity to travel with her father or just spend time with him. “I cannot hug him anymore,” she said, admitting she still has his number in her phonebook and occasionally dials it. “But he is still here. I feel him present in our family gatherings.”
Every Sunday, even if it’s raining or if it’s so late the facilities are locked, Lida visits her father’s cemetery. She brings fresh flowers tied in a blue ribbon because blue was Hooshang’s favorite color. “That’s my time with dad,” she said.
Feeling his presence gives her strength and makes her feel supported. “He is my guardian angel. I could not ask for more except for the fact I miss him so much.”