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A Case of Road Rage
When a porn star and a college student driving through the San Fernando Valley fell into conflict, a Bangladeshi American family suffered the consequences
Photograph by Michael Kelley
On the Internet you can watch a four-minute video clip of Ayman Arif dancing. The venue is a bedroom in his Northridge home; his stage, a comforter patterned with sunflowers. Taking his cues from a Bollywood spectacular playing on the television, the four-year-old Bangladeshi American boy wriggles, twirls, and bounds. On his bare chest he wears the pink string sash of the Brahman jester he is pretending to be. His mop of brown hair gives way to a wide forehead, and his dark brown eyes are bright with fire as he sings along to the Bengali-language soundtrack. One moment he’s wagging a stern finger, the next he’s clasping his hands to his heart or pumping an outstretched palm toward the heavens.
On Tuesday, October 9, 2007, some ten months after her son’s impromptu performance made it onto YouTube, Syeda Arif was readying her family for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr—three days of gift giving, party hopping, overeating, and prayer to conclude the fast of Ramadan. At 30, Syeda was petite, with almond-shaped eyes and a husky laugh. She and her husband, Amir, lived in a Bangladeshi enclave in the northwest San Fernando Valley. Her father had been twice nominated to the Bangladeshi parliament, and Amir liked to say that she made friends with the ease of a born politician.
Around noon in the gathering heat of the day, Syeda buckled her two-month-old daughter, Ikra, into the car seat in her Honda Civic and drove to the home of Romey Islam, one of her best friends. The Islams lived in a modest gray ranch house on Sherman Way near Van Nuys Airport. Its soundproof front windows looked out onto a six-lane river of crosstown traffic that, like the row of palm trees lining the sidewalk, continued as far as the eye could follow.
Syeda wasn’t staying long; Ayman’s preschool would be letting out soon. With Ikra sitting on Romey’s lap at the mahogany kitchen table, the two women exchanged presents for the kids and discussed their holiday plans. Romey brought out a thick stack of bangles and the sari she’d be wearing on Eid—light blue with multicolored stones worked into the fabric. Syeda marveled at how beautiful the sari was. There were others just like it, Romey told her, at Sohana Fashion, a Bangladeshi boutique a couple of miles down Sherman Way. Before her friend left, Romey helped Ikra into a tiny red and white dress—much better for the weather than the heavy outfit the baby had on.
At 1:30 Syeda said good-bye and picked up Ayman at Lorne Street Elementary School, then decided to stop by Sohana Fashion. She chose a gold sari and a red one. When she was ready to go, she noticed her car keys were missing. Ayman had hidden them in Ikra’s stroller, and they took a minute or two to find. Syeda called Romey to tell her about the purchase, but her friend was so close, why not go back and show her?
Parked again near the Islams’ home, Syeda helped Ayman out of his seat and saw him to the curb. Holding Ikra in her arms, she went around to the back of her Civic and opened the trunk. She was grabbing for the diaper bag when she heard a loud screech, “something like the sound that precedes an accident,” she’d remember later. Just then a brand-new black Nissan Maxima 3.5 SL crashed into the Daewoo parked behind her with such force that the little car lurched forward into the gap where Syeda stood and pinned her against her car.
She managed to hold Ikra above the vise that was crushing her own body until the impact threw her daughter to a patch of muddy grass, where she landed facedown with a skull fracture and a broken arm. Syeda’s left leg was severed above the knee. Her right leg was bent back at a horrible angle. Both sides of her pelvis were broken, as were her left shoulder and her arms. After colliding with Syeda’s car, the Daewoo spun into the curb, striking Ayman. He was lifted from the ground and flew through the air until the back of his head slammed against a palm tree. Now he lay there at its base—his internal organs ruptured, his skull fractured, his brain fatally damaged, his face drenched in blood.
Moments before the collision, a night shift worker named Porter Lee Miles saw a black Maxima barrel up from behind him on Sherman Way and pass on the right. A red Camaro tore by on his left. Roger Cook, a 66-year-old film producer who races cars as a hobby, was going slightly above the 35-mile-per-hour speed limit himself, but as the Maxima swerved into the right lane and shot past him as well, he felt like he was sitting still. He estimated it was going at least 60. Seconds after the Maxima moved ahead, the Camaro came hurtling by.
The driver of the Maxima was a 19-year-old community college student named Armando Ayon, who was on his way to the Northridge Fashion Center to make a payment on his Macy’s credit card. Slightly built, Ayon wore braces that sometimes made it difficult to understand what he was trying to tell you. His jug ears stuck out from a nearly shaved head. On his MySpace page he called himself “Dopey.” Ayon wanted to be a firefighter, and he liked sketching designs for tattoos. Cal State Northridge had accepted him as a transfer student from L.A. Mission College, which he was attending while working at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Sylmar. Though the poor Pacoima neighborhood where he lived with his mother and two younger brothers was known for its gang activity, Ayon kept a clean record. His mother had bought him the Maxima a month before.
When Laura Beck noticed Ayon’s Maxima and the Camaro that afternoon, she was driving with her teenage son, hoping to get home in time for The Oprah Winfrey Show. She saw the Camaro speeding through heavy traffic with the Maxima close behind, vying for position. It was “like they were fighting,” she recalled. Near Sherman Way and Amestoy Avenue, the Maxima pulled behind the other car. Porter Lee Miles watched the Maxima cut into the curbside lane to get ahead. “It swerved, like, in front of me,” Miles remembered, “and hit the parked cars.”
The Daewoo didn’t slow the Maxima. Ayon’s car ricocheted across three lanes of traffic until its crumpled front end came to rest on the median. Cook parked his pickup in the middle of Sherman Way to block traffic and waved approaching cars onto a side street. He watched as the teenager got out of the Maxima uninjured and began to call friends and relatives to figure out how to get his car fixed. As his phone ran low on power, Ayon started talking to onlookers. “He was walking around the crowd,” says Cook. “He came up to me and just said, ‘Did you see that crazy guy? He ran me off the road.’ I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to argue with him.”
Romey Islam had been in her home at the time of the accident. She was with her friend Polee Ahmed, who had stopped by after Syeda left. They didn’t hear the crash, but they noticed the lights of an ambulance on the street. Stepping outside amid the sirens and twisted metal, Romey spotted a baby girl with her head in the grass. She started screaming when she recognized Ikra’s dress. Polee came out and tried to make sense of the chaos. There was Ikra on the ground. Then she saw Ayman. A nurse who’d stopped her car had already applied a tourniquet to the open wound at the end of Syeda’s left thigh. Through the blood and shock, Syeda looked up at Polee and asked whether her children were OK. Polee had to tell her they were.
In the summer of 2006, Brian Surewood gave an interview over milk and doughnuts to a correspondent from the Web site Adult DVD Talk as part of its series on notable porn stars and directors. Surewood, whose real name was Brian Barnes, made his first porn video at 32. With his long, thinning hair, bushy beard, and undefined physique, he wasn’t handsome the way he and his older brother had been when they were Chippendales dancers. Still, Barnes had found his niche as a pirate or a biker or a Viking type with a specialty in gang bangs. He had more than 650 hard-core videos to his credit, with titles like Jizz Junkies and Teenage Spermaholics.
Sitting in his Canoga Park living room decorated with medieval battle-axes and swords, Barnes was in a contemplative mood as he discussed his life and career. He had been raised in the Valley and spent his youth doing “a lot of pot smoking and surfing. I didn’t have too many ambitions in life, so I kind of drifted into things.” Porn, he says, saved him. “I had to use most of my money when I started up in this business for the first few years paying back society,” he goes on. “I wasn’t that bad, but I had acquired things in a few different states…driving stuff, so I had to clear up a whole lot of crap before I could actually get legitimate and legal again.”
Repeatedly the 43-year-old Barnes urges the interviewer to take a hit from the bong. He laughs at the thought of getting a medical marijuana prescription for himself. “Well, I smoke for not my health but for other people’s,” he says, “because I’m naturally—I think I’m generally a violent person, and smoking pot really helps me curb my ways and makes me very happy and mellow and easy to get along with instead of being an irate asshole.” Later he talks about fate. “I like to call myself ‘karma’s little helper’ sometimes,” he says. “No, I try to—try to—keep good karma with everything. And I’m always fair and honest and straight up with everything. But when somebody fucks with me…”
That Tuesday in October, Barnes was heading west down Sherman Way in his car, a 2000 red Camaro convertible that was missing its back window. Having just finished shooting a movie, he was en route to the medical marijuana store he co-owned. More than a decade since Barnes began clearing up traffic violations in different states, he may have considered himself legitimate and legal, but he wasn’t. He was driving with a suspended license—his fifth suspension in nine years. During that time he had received eight speeding tickets and one warning.
As soon as he heard the Maxima hitting the Daewoo and saw the wreckage in his rearview mirror, Barnes stopped his car. Porter Lee Miles came alongside him. “He pulled up and said, ‘Oh, my God, did you see that?’ ” Barnes told police. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’m already calling 911.’ I said, ‘Should we go back?’ And he’s all, ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ ” Convinced that Barnes had hit his brakes and caused Ayon to crash, Miles remembered the conversation differently: “I said, ‘Why the fuck did you do that?’…He said he was trying to get him off his ass.”
In the transcript of his 911 call, Barnes gives his location as five houses up the street from Romey Islam’s. He was close enough to tell the dispatcher and paramedic on the line that the rear end of a car had been smashed in, that he could see people down on the sidewalk, and that a little kid had been hurt. Then Barnes drove off. There was no information he could give police, he said later, that they couldn’t get just as easily from at least 50 drivers behind him. Besides, he said, “I didn’t think I was part of the accident in any way, shape, or form.”
So Barnes continued on to his medical marijuana store at Sherman Way off Topanga Canyon Boulevard. He collected his teenage son from school and bought a couple of burgers. Back at his house, he smoked some pot. The local news was running a segment about a car crash on Sherman Way that had critically injured a mother, her infant daughter, and her five-year-old son. The boy wasn’t expected to survive. Police were searching for the driver of a red Camaro that was missing its back window. Barnes called a lawyer, who met him that night at the Valley police station. At the end of a 25-minute interview, he was placed under arrest.
Syeda Jahan was 18 years old when she met the man her parents had arranged for her to marry. She had the option of refusing if she didn’t like their choice, but as 26-year-old Amir Arif sat across from her in the living room at her family home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he made a good impression. His face was round and kind; he looked slender in his T-shirt and blue jeans. “I didn’t talk much to him,” Syeda says, “but when I saw him, he’s very gentle and so quiet. I had heard he’s a very good person.” “I did not like her,” says Amir, teasing Syeda years after. “She begged me to marry her.”
Two weeks later, in the spring of 1995, they wed. The week after that Amir flew back to Los Angeles, where he’d lived for a few years. His father had worked his way up from nothing and owned land and property around the river port of Chandpur. Bangladesh offered Amir opportunities, but not the kind the United States promised. In L.A. he settled into a Bangladeshi pocket of Koreatown. He studied computer engineering at Cal Poly Pomona and spent his nights tending the cash register at an Arco station. On the longer school breaks, he came home to visit his wife.
By early 2001, Syeda’s visa was ready. Picking her up at LAX, Amir loaded one of her suitcases into the backseat and the other in his trunk. He announced they had an errand to run. “She was very unlucky that day,” says Amir, laughing. “She came on February 16, and I needed to file my taxes. I wanted to claim her on my taxes.”
“I just got off the plane,” Syeda says. “I’m tired, and he just brought me to the social security office from the airport. When I came back, there was glass in the backseat, and my suitcase with almost 50 dresses in it was gone.”
Two months after her arrival, Syeda discovered she was pregnant. “I was scared,” Amir recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, someone will be dependent on me. I have to take care of him.’ My heart was pounding. But when Ayman was born at Good Samaritan Hospital, in one second I changed completely. I realized that was the best thing that ever happened to me, because he was a very cute baby.” In Arabic, Ayman means “blessed” or “lucky.” For his middle name, Amir chose Walker, in honor of then-president George W. Bush.
Ayman became Amir’s best friend. They did everything together, even sleeping beside each other in bed. The boy’s ears were so attuned to the sound of Amir’s approaching car that he’d rush out to greet him as soon as he pulled into the driveway of their new home in Northridge. Ayman called his infant sister, Ikra, his baby. Amir boasted that his son had uploaded the Brahman dance video onto YouTube practically by himself. He had begun to set aside $50 each month toward Ayman’s tuition at what surely would be Harvard. “When Ikra was born in the hospital and came home until Ayman died, it was about two months—maybe a few days more,” Amir says. “Those two months were pretty much like paradise. Everybody was happy—Ayman was happy, I was happy, Syeda was happy. We had everything; we were full. I had a son and daughter. I had a house and a job. I could easily manage everything.”
The day of the collision, Amir was at his desk in Japan Telecom America’s downtown L.A. offices when he sensed the life draining out of him. “Suddenly—and I never feel this way—I feel that I am very sick,” he says. “I don’t want to work. I cannot think. My body is slowing down, and I can’t do anything.” He needed some air. He stepped out into a hot afternoon and checked on one of the digital equipment installations that his employer housed in nearby buildings, part of his job as a computer engineer. When he returned, an ashen-faced coworker handed him the phone. His brother was calling to tell Amir that his family had been injured in a car accident and that they’d been airlifted to Childrens Hospital in East Hollywood.
Twenty minutes later Amir staggered up to the hospital. Seeing he was about to collapse, a security guard put him in a wheelchair, and he was rolled to Ikra’s room. A clutch of police were talking in the hallway. His daughter was still in surgery, but the doctors told him that she would survive. Only when he asked to see his wife and son did he learn they were miles away, in two other hospitals. A helicopter had taken Ayman to Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, and Syeda had been brought to Northridge Hospital Medical Center by ambulance. Amir’s younger brother arrived at around 5 p.m. They spent the next hour and a half crawling through traffic to Westwood to see Ayman. “It was the longest journey of my life,” Amir says. “I wished I had the power to fly.”
At UCLA an elderly social worker took him to the trauma unit. A life-support system continued to inflate Ayman’s lungs and force a pulse, but by the way the boy’s neck was bent, Amir could tell his son was gone. “When I see him,” Amir says, “I already know that he died.” The doctor took him into a private room, gave him a glass of water, and sat him down. “He’s trying to explain to me this and that,” Amir says, “and I asked the doctor, ‘Just tell me he died.’ And the doctor said, ‘Yes.’ My total thinking, everything, is stopped. I cannot process anything.”
In this state Amir was driven over the Sepulveda Pass to Northridge Hospital. “I see lots of people from my community,” he recalls. “Hundreds of people are gathering there because it was headline news for all the TV and radio.” His wife had lost her left leg. She had already submitted to several operations and went through several more over the next three days. A week would go by before Amir could talk to his wife, who was delirious with pain. “She asked me how the little baby was doing,” he says, “because the baby had been the closest to the impact. She thought Ayman was safe.” He didn’t tell her about their son, because he worried it would kill her.
Amir returned to UCLA the day after the accident to visit Ayman once more. “I knew there was not a chance,” he says. “I saw my son’s body was deteriorating. I didn’t want to give him any more hardship and pain, so I told the doctor to remove the life support. That was the toughest decision of my life. In front of my eyes they removed the machine support from my son, and then they brought him some clothing and put his body in a package and moved his body to a refrigeration room.”
Amir wanted to donate Ayman’s eyes—at least some good might come from what was left of his son—but his relatives couldn’t believe that he was willing to desecrate the body this way, in violation of Islamic law. So he called the hospital back to say he had changed his mind. Amir asked that Ayman be released, but because he was a crime victim, the coroner had to perform an autopsy first.
While Ayman lay in the morgue, Amir bought a pretty spot for him in the Muslim section of Pierce Brothers Valhalla cemetery in North Hollywood. His faith requires the closest relatives to bathe the body of the person they are mourning. Once Ayman arrived at the cemetery, Amir and his two brothers entered a room where he was ready to be prepared for burial. “When I went inside, I lost myself. I saw his body naked, and it was horrible,” Amir says. “In the autopsy, they cut him from his neck to his stomach, and they used very thick twine to keep him together. It was so horrible seeing him like this. It’s with me always. When I remember, I cannot hold my tears for one moment.” His brothers led him out and cleaned the body themselves, wrapping it in a traditional burial shroud. On the lawn the white folds were parted, as Amir and about 500 other people lined up to see his son’s face for the last time.
Shortly after Ayman’s death, Barnes and Ayon were indicted for second-degree murder. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa held a press conference. “We’re going to throw the book at them,” he said, “and enforce the law, because what happened to that family was unacceptable.” The police had found eyewitnesses, and a former New Jersey state trooper named James Falco was assigned as prosecutor. Falco seemed to share the family’s hurt. “Usually I think I can handle a case without letting the emotional aspect influence me,” he says. “With this one, though, it did. It really affected me.”
Announcing the murder charges, the L.A. County district attorney’s office labeled the incident a case of alleged road rage. Los Angeles drivers know it when they see it through their windshields or succumb to it themselves, but road rage isn’t a prosecutable offense. The California Highway Patrol hasn’t kept statistics on road rage, because, following the federal government’s lead, it doesn’t distinguish between road rage and other forms of aggressive driving, like speeding. Any data gathered has been anecdotal: In the mid-1990s, the Auto Club of America released a compendium of grisly incidents that was seen as evidence of either a road rage epidemic or of media-inspired fear mongering, depending on who was doing the interpreting. The year before Ayman’s death, two professors from Harvard and the University of Chicago published a study concerning a seldom-researched mental condition called intermittent explosive disorder that causes subjects to “overreact to situations with uncontrollable rage, feel a sense of relief during the angry outburst, and then feel remorseful about their actions.” The condition, which might spark road rage, was found to affect 7 percent of American adults.
The California criminal code is far less severe for defendants who kill bystanders using a car as a deadly weapon than for those who use guns. In May 2008, Superior Court Judge Leslie Dunn ruled there was sufficient evidence to try Barnes and Ayon. But to win a second-degree vehicular-murder conviction, Falco would have to prove that the defendants meant to drive in the manner that caused Ayman’s death. He would also have to convince a jury that Barnes and Ayon had specific knowledge that what they were about to do could kill someone and that they decided to do it anyway.
Preparing for trial, Falco was assembling a much stronger murder case against Barnes than Ayon. He petitioned the judge to allow an airing of Barnes’s driving history—the eight speeding tickets, the five license suspensions, even his signed certificate of completion at the Comedy Traffic School in Northridge. Ayon didn’t have any past citations. With Porter Lee Miles and Laura Beck, the prosecutor had two witnesses who would testify that Barnes had hit his brakes and come to a complete stop as Ayon drove behind him, forcing the Maxima to swerve into the Daewoo. (Barnes had a traffic expert ready to offer evidence that this would have been impossible, that Ayon wouldn’t have had time to swerve.) Both witnesses considered the middle-aged guy who left the scene more culpable than the teenager who stayed.
Falco’s best chance for a murder conviction was to offer Ayon a deal in return for his cooperation. Testifying against Barnes, Ayon could give jurors insight into how their conflict began and escalated before the first witnesses spotted them. From the beginning, each had blamed the other for everything. Several hours after the collision, Barnes and Ayon had waived their Miranda rights and submitted to videotaped questioning by detectives. Sitting beside his attorney and obviously shaken, Barnes tells the story of this “psycho” driving a Maxima whom he noticed maybe one traffic light east of Sherman Way and Amestoy. He describes the Maxima moving crazily through heavy traffic until, for no good reason, it glued itself against the bumper of his Camaro, which he was driving in the middle lane while keeping to the speed limit. “The black car pulled up behind me,” Barnes says. “It was gunning it and gunning it like, you know, punching it right up on my bumper.” He says he tapped his brakes three times to get his tormentor to back off. The Maxima tried passing him on the right and lost control. “He was doing one of these maneuvers,” Barnes adds, “vroom, vroom—and then he went vroom. I don’t know what he did, but he just pitched it.”
In Ayon’s video interrogation, it’s the Camaro driver who’s the psycho. When Ayon first sees Barnes—who, he tells detectives, had “blond hair like a girl, like long hair”—the car is in the middle lane with its right turn signal on, trying to cut in front of his Maxima. But there wasn’t enough room, Ayon says, so instead Barnes swung into the far left lane to pass the car in front of him. Within seconds the Camaro was tailgating Ayon. “Could he just see that perhaps that you sped up,” asks the detective, “or that you did not allow him to get in and that could have caused him to become upset and come around and get in front of you?…What I’m trying to clear up is what happened to cause this nonsense.” Ayon says he doesn’t know what was bothering the Camaro driver before the crash. “I’m probably going like 50 at the time when I changed lanes to beat him so I could get away from him…. Then he speeds up,” Ayon says, “and I’m like, ‘Damn,’ you know. That’s when I seen the brakes—boom, like flashing in my face, and I slam on the brake. And that’s when I—I kind of—that’s when I hit the curb and I was like, ‘Shit,’ you know like, ‘Fuck,’ and I lost control.”
During the weeks that followed Ayman’s death, neighbors and friends were always at the Arifs’ house to do chores. They helped with Ikra when she returned home from the hospital in December. The girl’s left elbow and hand were slightly crooked, and there was a shunt implanted in her skull to reduce the swelling in her brain. That same month Amir’s mother suffered a stroke in Bangladesh, which left her hands and legs paralyzed and robbed her of her speech. Amir blamed it on the loss of her grandson.
Amir had to grieve for Ayman alone. “In an ideal situation, if my wife and I were all right, we’re the ones who are communicating with each other and comforting each other,” he says. “My son died, and I could not get comfort from my wife.” Amir concealed Ayman’s death from Syeda for a month, though she has no recollection that he did so. When he finally told her about their son, a social worker was by her hospital bed and she’d been given more than her usual dose of morphine. Syeda began sobbing, but it wasn’t until weeks later, once she saw a newspaper photo of her son in his burial shroud, that her depression began to overwhelm her. Because of subsequent surgeries and physical therapy, she remained at Northridge Hospital for several more months. The day she was released in the spring of 2008, she asked to be driven straight to Ayman’s grave.
Returning home, Syeda was confronted with how little she could do. Like other Bangladeshi wives in Los Angeles, she was expected to keep an immaculate house, prepare the meals and fold the laundry, care for the children, and make sure everything ran in perfect order. Now she couldn’t carry Ikra, couldn’t cook or clean or drive, could hardly make her way across a room.
Amir’s policy with Aetna paid up to $22,500 for an artificial limb, but for that price the local prosthesis center outfitted Syeda with a hydraulic metal leg that looked like it had been designed in the 1950s. It would have been too heavy for her to manage even if the rest of her body hadn’t been so broken. Mostly the leg leaned against a wall as Syeda hobbled around the house with her walker.
Only Amir had escaped October 2007 without physical wounds. But at his core, he festered. “You see me from the outside,” he says. “I’m not a normal person like before. I’m injured inside. I feel like my organs are bleeding. I’ve been trying to fix this, but it’s so difficult. Every time the pain is there.” Powerless to repair his family, Amir became an activist. He spoke at a mass rally on the street where his son died, demanding stiffer penalties for aggressive drivers who kill. At Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks he addressed the 2008 graduating class and told the family’s story. Amir also started the Ayman Walker Arif Memorial Foundation. Its Web site features family pictures with advice on how to defuse the kind of traffic confrontation that killed his son.
In January 2009, prosecutor James Falco informed Amir that both defendants were going to be allowed to plead to lesser charges. Should they accept, they’d be serving nothing like the 25 or 30 years the Arifs had expected. “I felt angry,” Amir says, “because they killed my son and the murder penalty would have been more if they were in my country. I thought the justice system should be more fair.” Amir sent a letter of protest to L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley, with copies to his city councilman, Falco, and Mayor Villaraigosa. He didn’t understand why he had not been included in the deliberations to forgo trial, as he believed he was entitled under the California Victims’ Bill of Rights, and he urged Cooley to withdraw the offer and reinstate the murder charges. The D.A. never got back to him. Falco didn’t explain why he suddenly offered both men a deal, but Amir has his suspicions: “With this decision, I realized, it was not him. It was someone else, maybe his supervisor. This thing was decided in the upper office.”
That March, to a nearly empty courtroom, the defendants pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. Barnes also pleaded no contest to leaving the accident scene and Ayon to causing great bodily injury. Barnes asked to be sentenced immediately and was given 11 years. With time credited for good behavior, he could be out after serving five and a half.
During the pretrial hearings, Ayon’s ex-girlfriend had visited him at L.A. County Jail. “He would start crying for the little boy,” Lucia Vasquez says. “I didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to let it go.” Now at his sentencing, a month after Barnes’s, Ayon stood up in his orange jumpsuit and shackles. “Mr. Arif, I don’t know if Mrs. Arif is present today in court, but first of all I want to say I’m truly sorry for everything that happened,” he said. “I apologize. It was never my intention. I tried to prevent all this. I am sorry for all the distress and pain that was caused in this terrible accident. If I could go back in time, I’d gladly change everything, ’cause I don’t have the intention or the mentality with a heart to cause pain—to take away a life from any human being.” Ayon received a sentence of six years, and with good behavior he could be eligible for release by the end of 2012.
At the courtyard apartment he shared with his family in Pacoima, a matted mop stands sentry next to the front door, which is missing one of its brass address numbers. All the apartments have assigned parking spaces. In the Ayons’ spot sits a 2007 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SL, pristine except for the silver emblem missing from its hood. “That car is old,” says Ayon’s mother, Virginia. “That one is one my husband drove around for years.” But its vehicle identification number matches the one belonging to the car that killed Ayman.
Both Ayon and Barnes declined requests for an interview; however Barnes’s fiancée, Carmen Seguin, sent me several e-mails. “Up to this day,” she writes, “Brian maintains his innocence, and denies any responsibility for the accident.” Barnes plans to reopen his case, even though his plea bargain will make it difficult for him. “He’s not sitting happy doing time in prison for something he didn’t do,” writes Seguin, “so we are in the process of continuing the case in hopes of exposing the truth that was not allowed to be told during the preliminary and pretrial so that Brian can clear his name and be set free.”
In subsequent e-mails Seguin outlines a combined attack by the media and politicians who lied and by witnesses who had their memories “reprogrammed” by Ayon. “The humane stories I hear of Brian are endless he was always ready to help out any friend, animal or insect,” Seguin writes. “This whole scenario has showed me how unfair life is and how it really doesn’t matter how good of a person you are in life or to your fellow man because all it takes is one reckless teenager with a sweet face and a good lie to erase all the good you’ve done in life and turn you in to a monster.”
On a morning close to Christmas, Amir Arif ushers me into his house and makes his usual apology for the mess. The dining room table looks as if it’s been set for a formal dinner; the living room, with its elaborately carved sofa and crimson vase collection, is spotless. Syeda’s mother is sautéing Bengali shrimp and fish on the kitchen stove.
In family photos taken before Ayman’s death, Amir appears proud and fit—boyish for his 39 years. Now there is a weight to his face, and gray is creeping up from the ends of his sideburns. His cheeks are careworn; his hair is thinning. If you compared this Amir with the young father in the photos, you would assume a decade had passed.
He resigned from Japan Telecom some months ago, too mentally exhausted to continue. The family derives most of its income now from the two Quiznos near LAX that Amir owns with one of his brothers. They are struggling to pay the $1 million in medical bills not covered by insurance. But Amir isn’t tied to a desk anymore when he gets a call from home to fix a problem that would have been no problem at all before October 2007.
Ikra darts in and out of the hallway. Every couple of minutes she rushes up to Amir and pulls at his blue jeans. With authority she makes long observations in a toddler language only she understands. Ikra’s brown hair falls in loose corkscrews onto her forehead and ears, so thick that it obscures the top of the shunt the surgeon implanted. At two-and-a-half, she appears healthy and energetic, though her left arm and hand are permanently bent. The doctors told Amir they could correct them somewhat, but he doesn’t want to put her through additional pain.
Syeda is still adjusting to the computer-controlled C-Leg she finally received a month ago. She wears a gold three-quarter-length blouse with a gold-patterned weave and gold slacks to match. Nylons cling to her right leg and to her prosthesis, culminating in suede slip-ons. She can drive now, do some cleaning and cooking, buy small things at the market. “The insurance company—they could have given me this a year before,” she says. “Why they delayed it, I don’t understand. If they gave it to me earlier, one year of my life would have been so much easier.”
In July 2008, four months after returning home from the hospital, Syeda found she was pregnant again. Almost everyone recommended abortion because of her physical condition and because her medication might cause birth defects. Amir was at first supportive but joined the consensus. Syeda paid no heed. “I don’t know why, but inside I think I feel my son,” she says. “He’s not alive, so I think maybe God is giving me back my son. Otherwise, how did this situation happen? How come I got pregnant again? So that’s why I am totally determined. I want this baby.”
Syeda was disconcerted when told she’d be having a girl. “The first day, I felt bad. I was expecting a boy. But after that, it’s OK. I think it’s God sending me a different version.” Early in her pregnancy she stopped taking painkillers and antidepressants. She came to term while using a walker, and because of the pelvic fractures her daughter had to be delivered by cesarean section.
“After having the baby, she recovered 70 or 80 percent from her depression,” Amir says. “No one could believe it. The baby was a miracle. It worked like medicine for her.” Sometime during their ordeal Amir realized that his wife was tougher than he was. “I have praise for her,” he says. “Even through all of this, she has remained positive and has kept trying. If I was in her place, I could not handle it.”
Eight-month-old Afsa Arif scoots around the narrow family room in her play saucer. With eyes like her mother’s, she alternately watches PBS on a flat screen and the saucer’s plastic teddy bears shuddering on their springs. Syeda settles into a rattan chair, a blue cane by her side.
“Before,” she says, “if I heard that somebody’s friends died or something, or their children died, I feel, ‘Oh, my God, if it happens to me, I will die immediately.’ And after this happened, still I’m OK. So now I think I’m not emotional. I’m strong. I have a daughter and have to raise her. And if I didn’t take care of my baby, my husband, this house—one day it would all be destroyed.”
In death, Ayman dominates their home maybe more than when he was alive. Next to Amir’s backyard pumpkin patch, a storage shed holds 20 boxes containing all the possessions the boy left behind—homework, doodles, toys, books, even the bloodstained jeans and shirt he wore the day he died. Amir steps out of the family room and brings back a child-size three-button blue suit and a dark tie with tiny colored rectangles. The instant Syeda notices the outfit, bought for an Eid celebration Ayman would not live to see, her smile evaporates and her eyes brim with tears. “The whole week we were shopping,” Amir recalls. “I wore suits at work, and Ayman was always asking me, ‘Can you buy me a suit like you, Baba? I want to wear a suit.’ ”
Almost every weekend the couple visits Ayman’s grave, where they speak to him and freshen the plot with flowers. Amir and Syeda are naturalized U.S. citizens, and since their son’s death, their ties to Bangladesh have only withered further. They can never leave Los Angeles, where Ayman lived his five years, can never widen the distance between what’s left of their family and the soil where their son rests. “How could I go?” Amir says. “For me, Ayman is everything. If I leave him, I will have to come back. So this has become my real home, even more than Bangladesh. There is no way we can go. The rest of our lives we have to live here—because Ayman is here.”
Ed Leibowitz is a Los Angeles magazine writer-at-large.