Mystery over Canadian Murdered in Kuwait
The female jailer, dressed in black, head-to-toe abaya and veil, stands at the foot of the hospital bed, sipping tea from a Thermos like an angel of death on a coffee break. Her heavily made-up eyes - the only visible part of her anatomy - flick between the Arabic variety show on the television and her prisoner, but it's obvious that it will be some time before Mary Jane Bitos is in a position to make any sudden moves. Skeleton thin and twisted like a pretzel, the 26-year-old is still undergoing surgery and treatment for the three gunshot wounds she suffered last Oct. 10 - the night she and her Canadian husband, Luc Éthier, were gunned down in their Kuwait City suburb.
Éthier's grinning image beams from the bedside table as Bitos talks about what happened that night and since. How she tried to cover his bleeding body with her own, how she begged the ambulance drivers to take him first. The three frantic days in hospital before the doctors finally told her her husband was dead.
The story tumbles out faster and faster. The Kuwaiti man she identified four times in police lineups as the killer. The charges that were instead brought against her and six other Filipinos - some good friends, others nodding acquaintances - for Éthier's murder. The trial that could eventually see her escorted to the gallows by the same watchful woman at the end of the bed. "When the police are here I talk to Luc's picture," Bitos confides. "I say, 'Luc, help me!' I say, 'I know I have to be strong for your sake.'"
Is the frail woman in the bed a victim of terror or a cold-blooded murderer who orchestrated her husband's slaying for a US$80,000 death benefit? Bitos takes a rare breath and locks her dark eyes with the first civilian visitor she has been allowed since early November. Éthier's friends and family in Canada shouldn't believe what has been written in the papers, she says. "The police were always asking me about the insurance, but I'm not after the money. I married him because I loved him," she pleads. "I didn't take advantage of him - tell Luc's family it's not true, because I really loved their son."
Since that meeting with Maclean's in late January, Bitos and four of her co-defendants have been released on their own recognizance. But the MURDER charges are still pending, and their trial resumes on April 30, in the tiny, oil-rich emirate. That's the boilerplate description news reports always seem to use for Kuwait. Money would be a simpler shorthand. The Persian Gulf state is awash in oil dollars. Top-of-the-line BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches and monstrous 4x4s drag-race along the expressways. There are vast American-style malls, gleaming skyscrapers, palatial seaside villas, and enough gold shops to throw that commodity's status as a precious metal into serious question. The whole place appears to have been built from scratch since oil became global king in the early 1970s. Foreign workers, lured by the chance to earn a better living than they can at home, are what keeps the country running, making up an estimated 65 per cent of the 2.2-million population.
Luc Éthier came to Kuwait in December, 1999, for the same reason almost everyone else does. He more than doubled the after-tax income he'd been earning as an aviation ordnance technician in the Canadian Forces for the previous 15 years. He joined several colleagues from CFB Bagotville and dozens of other former servicemen from the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand at the Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, helping to maintain the Kuwaiti Air Force's fleet of F-18 fighter jets.
Friends and co-workers in Canada and Kuwait all use the same set of words to describe Éthier. Quiet. Shy. Meticulous. One of his former colleagues at Bagotville, in Quebec's Saguenay region, worked side-by-side with the 36-year-old Montrealer for four years and lived only a couple of doors away, but says, "I didn't really know him that well." Around the base, most people remember him for the mint-condition 1980s-vintage Lincoln Continental he drove and fussed over incessantly.
Introverted, practically a teetotaller, Éthier seemed unlikely to raise anyone's ire. "He wasn't the kind of guy to look for trouble," says Master Cpl. Roch Roy, one of his former bosses. "That's what hit people around here. They were like, 'Luc Éthier!?' He was straight as an arrow."
Éthier and Bitos met at a Christmas party just a couple of weeks after he landed in Kuwait. Bitos, who had arrived from the Philippines that October, was working as a waitress at a local restaurant and living with a cousin, sending home almost all of her meagre paycheque to support her mother and grandmother. (Salaries for foreign workers in Kuwait are largely tied to their country of origin. Filipinos, East Indians and Bangladeshis, who mostly work as drivers, nannies and domestics, are at the bottom of the scale, earning between 40 and 60 Kuwaiti dinars a month - $200 to $300.) Friends say Bitos was Éthier's perfect match: quiet, devoutly religious, the kind of girl who preferred to sit at home and watch TV, or listen to love songs on the stereo.
Coming off of a recent breakup with a live-in girlfriend who had stayed behind in Quebec, Éthier was excessively cautious about Bitos. In the first few weeks of the blossoming romance, he even took time off work to check up on her. "He wanted to marry her and take her back to Canada. He wanted to make sure that she loved him 100 per cent," says Art Baker, a co-worker at the air base. "He wanted to make sure that she wasn't going to use him for money or a visa."
Whatever Éthier found, he must have been satisfied. That spring, he asked his company to provide him with his own apartment, and he and Bitos quickly set up house. There are boxes filled with the love letters they exchanged during their courtship, endearingly crafted in their common second language. Éthier signed himself "Lucky." "My love for you is not artificial, but well incrusted [sic] into the deepest part of my heart," he wrote in one. "My heart is aflame and it's burning for you." Bitos was "Cookie." All of her letters ask God to protect their relationship.
Early in 2001, the couple approached Bitos's cousin, Lorna Oro, and her American husband, Lonnie Hamlett, and quaintly asked permission to get married. They made a conversion of convenience to Islam to ease the process, and were wed in a private ceremony. It was months before most of their friends even found out about their change in status.
Éthier was a protective sort of guy. He often complained to friends about the way Kuwaiti men would stare at Bitos on the street, or how they propositioned her when he wasn't around, sometimes even brandishing wads of bills. The Kuwaiti attitude towards Asians was one of the main reasons Éthier had decided not to renew his contract with DynCorp, the U.S.-based defence contractor that employed him. He and Bitos were preparing to return to Canada when his term was done in December, 2001. They were talking about buying a house in Drummondville, Que., and maybe having Éthier's parents, who are both in poor health, move in with them. They would often surf the Net, looking at real-estate pages and checking out the tourist attractions in Montreal and Quebec City that they planned to visit together. Bitos seemed enthralled at the prospect of building her first snowman.
No one in their circle - his friends, her friends - can recall any friction between them. No arguments over money or the planned move. No secret confessions of doubt or unhappiness. No obvious motive for the cold-blooded murder plot Bitos allegedly engineered under everyone's noses. "They were like the ideal couple," says Lonnie Hamlett. "They were always together. They were so much in love with each other it was sickening."
"I never saw them fight - they were always very close," says Benoit Rivard, Éthier's best friend in Kuwait. "She would follow Luc around at parties." Rivard, a former Canadian Forces colleague, helped Éthier get his job at DynCorp. In October, he brought his body back to Canada. "It's so hard to believe. I don't care what the police say. I don't think she had anything to do with it. "
The rains don't come until December in Kuwait, and street cleaners are few and far between, so it took weeks before the bloodstains finally disappeared from the patch of sidewalk where Luc Éthier breathed his last. A disturbing reminder for the other residents of his Fahaheel neighbourhood, a gritty beachfront suburb of high-rise apartments and low-rise shops, situated between an expressway and an oil refinery, that is home to thousands of expatriates.
Wednesday, Oct. 10, was a hot day, so Éthier changed into shorts and a golf shirt when he got home from working the afternoon shift at the air base. He and Bitos ate dinner, then left their ground-floor apartment to run some errands. It was after 9 p.m., but the streets were still crowded. Éthier got a haircut. They went window shopping and stopped for ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. Bitos picked up some pants at the tailor's while her husband browsed in their favourite gold store looking for Christmas presents for his family. They swung by the bank machine, then stopped at the Internet café to make some cheap overseas calls - Éthier's mother, and the Canadian Forces, to see if there was a possibility of him returning to his old job.
The killer opened fire as they cut across a parking lot next to the Fahaheel traffic circle, just before 11 p.m., walking hand in hand. Kids were playing nearby. The first shot hit Éthier in the upper right side of his back, spinning him around as the bullet travelled down and to the left, slicing through his lung and heart. "Jesus Christ! What the hell is going on?" is all he had time to say before he collapsed on the red interlocking bricks, in the shadow cast by a billboard for Burger King Whoppers. The killer squeezed off two more 9-mm rounds, striking Éthier in the left thigh and crotch, but it was the first shot that killed him within seconds. "Death was caused by tearing in the lung, and the heart and blood vessels, haemorrhage and shock," says the autopsy report.
Bitos remembers seeing a hole open up in the front of Éthier's shirt, as her husband's weight pulled her down towards the ground. Then, more shots. "I heard the bang. I felt something hot hit me. My legs went numb. I heard my shoulder crack," she says. There were a few moments of surreal quiet before pandemonium again broke loose. "Luc was lying straight on the ground and I was screaming, 'Help! Help!'" says Bitos. "I tried to hug him." The gunman shot her a third time, in the back of the shoulder.
The attack came three days after the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Afghanistan began, and one day after Osama bin Laden's Kuwaiti-born spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, issued a call for a holy war to "strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of God and your enemies." The timing gave immediate rise to suspicion that Éthier had fallen victim to terrorists. The local newspapers were filled with conflicting details gleaned from dozens of shoppers and storekeepers who had witnessed the shooting. It had been a drive-by - three men with a submachine gun. The killer was a Pakistani. The lone gunman escaped on foot. The bearded assailant screamed "Allahu Akbar" - "God is Great" - three times in a Kuwaiti accent.
Recovering in hospital from a shattered arm and a bullet that passed through her hips, grazing her spinal cord and perforating her intestines, Bitos provided police with a detailed description of the assailant, even drawing a sketch a few days later. He was a "sloppy-looking," bearded, Arab man, dressed in a blue, long-sleeved checkered shirt and a pair of brown pants. His head was covered with a red and white gutra, the traditional headdress favoured by many Kuwaiti men.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Western nations had warned their citizens working or travelling in the Arab world to exercise extra caution. Éthier's death, and a Molotov cocktail attack on two German tourists in Saudi Arabia the next day, seemed to confirm everyone's worst fears. Kuwait's expatriate community - including almost 8,000 Americans, many of them military personnel, 4,000 Britons and 2,400 Canadians - was thrown into panic. Many foreigners started making plans to evacuate their families or simply pack up and go home. "We know there are extremists here. It's not a joke," says Claude Méthot, another DynCorp employee. Méthot, who also worked at Bagotville at the same time as Éthier, says almost everyone he knows was considering leaving. Among the few who were willing to stay, there was immediately talk of the need for danger pay. "We were traumatized. We couldn't go outside," adds Méthot's wife, Isabelle Desbiens. "We were all asking each other, 'What's your evacuation plan?'"
Kuwait's federal security police (everyone refers to them as the FBI) took charge of the investigation. More than 60 suspects with ties to radical Islamic movements were detained and questioned. The minister of the interior told district security chiefs that they would face criminal charges if more foreigners were attacked and no suspects were arrested. Within days, investigators announced they had arrested the culprit - Majed al Mutairi, a 30-year-old sergeant in the Ministry of the Interior's oil installation protection department. Mutairi was reported to have connections to Al-Takfir wal-Hijra (the name means "excommunication and emigration"), an offshoot of the Egyptian Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya terrorist movement.
Al-Takfir members in Kuwait are said to be responsible for several recent incidents where foreign workers judged to have offended Islamic standards of decency were driven out into the desert, stripped and flogged. In April, 2000, seven alleged members of the group were charged (and ultimately acquitted) for the beating of a female economics college student who was not wearing a hijab. A street shooting would be a worrying escalation in a country that has not generally been considered a hotbed for terrorism (although authorities did seize 135 kg of explosives and arrest six men in November, 2000, foiling a plot to bomb a U.S. Army camp).
Police brought Mutairi to Bitos's hospital room. "That's him. That's the man that killed Luc," she shouted when he was presented as part of a lineup. Bitos identified him on three other occasions over the following days. Local papers reported that Mutairi had confessed to the crime. The minister of the interior announced that he would be tried for murder.
Members of Mutairi's family and extended tribe protested that he was being set up. Several people came forward to say he had been attending a religious picnic in the desert on the day of the shooting. Questions were raised in the national parliament after Mutairi and his lawyer said he had been repeatedly tortured: lashed with a stick, punched and hung over a hot grill during interrogations. They vowed to sue.
Even while Mutairi was in custody, Kuwaiti police seemed eager to pursue other avenues of investigation. They searched Éthier and Bitos's apartment three times, paying special attention to financial documents and insurance policies. They interviewed the couple's friends, repeatedly asking about the state of the marriage and whether Bitos had any other romantic entanglements. "They started asking all these questions, making her sound like a whore - they kept asking me over and over again if she had a boyfriend," says one of Éthier's former roommates (he asked that his name not be used, fearing trouble with the authorities). "If she did, it was the best-kept secret of all time."
In late October, security forces began rounding up Filipino friends and acquaintances of Bitos. Teddy Tomaro, a maintenance man in the apartment tower where Éthier and Bitos used to live, and his girlfriend, Rosalia Baclig, Bitos's best buddy. Two other friends, Lourdes Viray and Noraisa Asiak. Jamie Binuya and Edgar Robea, members of the same Bible study group as Tomaro and most of the others.
On Nov. 6, the Ministry of the Interior issued a brief press release announcing that Bitos and the other Filipinos had confessed to murdering Éthier for his insurance money. "The main motive for the crime is financial, not political," said the terse statement. "The criminals tried to use the delicate political circumstances to cover up their murder."
Mutairi walked out of the central prison the same day, greeted by a crowd of several hundred cheering members of his tribe. They hoisted him on their shoulders. He shouted "Allahu Akbar" three times.
The men sit on the right side of the courtroom, the women on the left. The prosecutor has a perch on the bench, next to the three presiding judges. Heads shaved, dressed in loose brown prison shirts and baggy pants, Teddy Tomaro and Jamie Binuya stand inside the steel defendants' cage, hands and feet manacled. Binuya is praying. Lourdes Viray, Noraisa Asiak and Rosalia Baclig sit handcuffed in the back row of the women's section, minded by a veiled female jailer. (Edgar Robea, who supposedly helped plan the ambush, left Kuwait shortly after the murder to return to a long-standing job in Saudi Arabia. He was extradited back, but charges were dropped in early December, leaving friends and family of the other suspects wondering why their loved ones are still in prison when one of the "masterminds" is now back home in the Philippines.)
Theirs is the 18th case dealt with this late January morning - after all the car thieves, assaults and the woman whose ex-husband is prosecuting her for having an abortion. Inside the prosecutor's thick file is the confession Tomaro gave to police after five days of interrogation. Printed in block letters and rendered in broken English, it is short and to the point. "Mary Jane said to me, she need help & I asking what kind of help, she said if I till you kill my husband you do!" Tomaro wrote. "I said what is my benefits if I do this, she said if my husband die I have money in his insurance worth $80,000, 50% I give to you." Éthier and Bitos fought constantly, says the document, she married him only for his money, and had no desire to go to Canada. Robea planned the hit, the confession continues. Binuya acted as the lookout. Asiak got a gun from her Kuwaiti husband. Baclig and Viray helped Tomaro escape the police dragnet.
Ahmed Qurban, the lead defence lawyer, is a gracious and slightly stooped 75-year-old who loves to talk about his four wives and 28 children (he colour-codes the keys to his various homes). Over lunch at a T.G.I.Friday's, a slice of cheesy Americana plopped down on the shore of the Persian Gulf, he is matter-of-fact about how the case was built against his clients. The confessions were extracted by verbal threats or physical force. Tomaro says investigators beat the soles of his feet with a wire, wrung his chest muscles painfully and jammed keys between his fingers, then forced them together. "In police stations, things happen," Qurban says between bites of his Buffalo wings. "They are the same everywhere." The night the Interior Ministry announced the Filipino plot, police brought Tomaro to the Fahaheel traffic circle and forced him to re-enact the crime in front of several hundred witnesses, slapping him until he obeyed the order to point a cellphone like a gun.
There is no physical evidence linking any of the accused to the crime, says Qurban. Ballistics tests on the weapons seized from Asiak's husband didn't match the bullets found in Éthier's body. The real murder weapon has yet to be located. Tomaro and Binuya's clothing and hands showed no traces of gunpowder residue. "Luc was wearing shorts, maybe that's why he was killed. Because of bin Laden," the lawyer says. Qurban says Canadians needn't fear, Kuwait's justice system is open and fair. "The Emir, he never interferes with the judges or prosecutors. We are thankful for that," he says. The death penalty is rarely enforced - Kuwait has executed 36 people since 1961, Texas dispatched 39 in the year 2000 alone - and the Emir, who recently recovered from a life-threatening stroke, is even less inclined to sign the warrants these days, Qurban adds.
Others involved in the case are not quite so confident that justice will be done. Benoit Rivard, who helped the police sort through Éthier and Bitos's personal papers, says the US$80,000 insurance policy Éthier was supposedly killed for names his former girlfriend in Quebec as the beneficiary. DynCorp confirms this is the case. Éthier's $100,000 Canadian Forces policy named his mother. No forms for changing either of the death benefits were in the apartment, says Rivard. Investigators took the policies, but they are not part of the prosecution's case file, say the three defence lawyers (they ask a visiting journalist if he can get them copies). Neither is a legal document issued by the Philippines embassy at the time of Éthier and Bitos's marriage, attesting that she has never been wedded before. (A vengeful ex-husband is one of the many theories investigators initially put forward.)
According to police, investigators made the link between the suspects by examining call records from Tomaro's cellphone. They point to calls made to Bitos as proof the pair were having an affair and conspired to kill Éthier. Friends say the phone in question, though registered to Tomaro, in fact belonged to his girlfriend Baclig, Bitos's best friend. At one point in the investigation, simply being Filipino seemed enough to get anyone caught up in the police dragnet. Nerissa Agnew, Binuya's sister, says police ransacked her brother's apartment after arresting him. Photos and videos of a going-away party for Robea were taken and everyone who appeared in the images - including the pastor of their evangelical church - was arrested. Another Filipino man, a co-worker of Éthier's who lives in the building where Tomaro works, was also arrested and interrogated by police. During the questioning, Tomaro was brought into the room and, with prodding from investigators, identified the DynCorp employee, who was blindfolded and handcuffed to a chair, as the driver of the getaway car. Police released the man after eight hours when they discovered he was an American citizen.
Nerissa Agnew says Tomaro's confession implicating her brother and the others doesn't stand up. Binuya didn't even know Bitos, and was watching a video with Robea the night of the killings, she says. Agnew also scoffs at the alleged motive for the murder. "If they get that $80,000 and divide it up among seven people, what's that?" Bitos had every reason in the world to be happy, she says. "For Asian women it's a dream to get married and go to North America," says Agnew, as her American husband, Dale, shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "It represents a good life, a better life than here in Kuwait."
The Kuwaiti government is reluctant to talk about the case. A Maclean's request for an interview with investigators was met with a demand that written questions be submitted in advance. After a day's worth of phone calls, faxes and waiting in anterooms at the Ministry of the Interior, which controls the police, the request was denied. "They said they don't want a headache," Col. Ahmad al Shagawi, head of public relations, explained apologetically. "They found the real killers and they let Mutairi go."
If officials won't speak on the record, they are more than willing to pass on rumours and innuendo. One ministry employee claims to know Bitos well and swears she had many boyfriends (friends of the couple say the person is lying on both counts). The Kuwaiti husband of Asiak, whose gun was allegedly used in the killing, has AIDS, another source says in a whisper.
Éthier's murder, which initially made headlines around the world, has received little international attention since the Kuwaiti government announced Bitos and the others had confessed to the crime. The Philippines government is bankrolling the defence of Bitos, Tomaro and the three women (Binuya's family has hired their own lawyer). Sukarno Tanggol, the Philippines ambassador to Kuwait, says there have been quiet expressions of support from other countries. "We believe that sooner or later the justice system in Kuwait will get to the truth," he says.
Richard Mann, Canada's ambassador, says the federal government also wants justice to be done, but has no direct involvement in the case because Bitos is not a citizen. "They have apparently come up with evidence that justifies having a trial and that's the way the system is supposed to work," he says. Regardless of the outcome of the trial, Canada does not believe Éthier's murder has any implications for the overall safety of Canadians in Kuwait, Mann adds.
Despite such assurances, many of Éthier's friends and co-workers remain convinced that his death was a crime of terror, and continue to live in fear. Fahaheel is a popular hangout for U.S. military personnel, says Claude Méthot. "Luc was blond, he had close-cropped hair, he was wearing shorts and walking hand in hand with a Filipino woman. That night he had the perfect profile of an American," Méthot says.
Tomaro remains in jail. Bitos, now staying at the Philippine embassy and still recovering from her wounds, told Maclean's in late January that she did confess to the crime and implicated Tomaro, but only under duress. She said she had a high fever and just wanted the relentless questioning to stop. "They said, 'You must help yourself. You must tell us Teddy is the one and then we'll set you free,' " she said. "I said yes, but deep inside I knew it wasn't true. After that I cried because I was afraid they will hang him and he didn't do it." The real killer is the man in the sketch, says Bitos. The man she identified, the man the police set free. "Whenever I close my eyes the face is there. The face is always there."
Maclean's March 18, 2002