x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Shahid King Bolsen's troubled road to Sharjah's Death Row

The man who killed a German engineer he met online in 2006 and briefly escaped from prison awaits an appeal court decision on whether he will be executed.

Shahid King Bolsen: he packed Martin Steiner's body in a suitcase and left it by the road.
Shahid King Bolsen: he packed Martin Steiner's body in a suitcase and left it by the road.

In 1971, Shannon Morris was born in Boulder, Colorado. In 2006 he confessed to Sharjah police that he had killed a German engineer he met online. On Sunday, he tried to escape from jail. Now he waits as an appeals court considers whether he will be executed. A blue suitcase weighed down the boot of the stolen white Mazda. At the wheel was Shahid King Bolsen, an American who had been living in Sharjah since 2003.

That evening, Bolsen carried the passport and credit cards of a man named Martin Herbert Steiner. The car belonged to Steiner, too. Miles behind Bolsen were his wife, his three children and a crime scene. He was heading to Oman on June 14, 2006, prosecutors say, and the suitcase weighed 80kg because it contained a grisly cargo: the body of Mr Steiner. But Bolsen, police say, was not confident he would make it over the Omani border. So he parked on the Dubai-Hatta Road and dragged the suitcase - weighing more than he did - behind a bush. After covering it with a tarpaulin and some dirt, he drove away, returning to Sharjah. Within days, he would be under arrest.

Bolsen was born Shannon Morris on June 5, 1971, in Boulder, Colorado. The red-headed, freckled boy was baptised a Catholic and grew up one of three children. His father left the family when Bolsen was 12 to pursue a screenwriting job in California. His mother, Linda, stayed in Boulder with her children. "We moved out of the town-home and into an apartment," she said. "I was working two jobs trying to get us by."

Bolsen, meanwhile, grew close to his brother Sean. They spent days playing and early mornings delivering copies of the Daily Camera newspaper to homes in town. "We were best friends growing up. We did everything together. We were inseparable," Sean said. Even as a child, though, Bolsen was disenchanted with the gap between the rich and poor in Boulder. He was fascinated with the works of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, and spent hours at the library reading, his mother said.

"Shannon was not a troubled youth. He was very stable. He had his life together. He was smart and funny and he knew it. He was very critical of America's consumerism and would always find a way of mocking it," his brother added. As he grew older, he began to be more active in practising those philosophies, getting involved in social work helping homeless people. Through all of this work, his family said, Bolsen continued to search for a spiritual direction that fitted with his views on poverty.

In the early months of 1997, Shannon came across a book documenting the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Islam's generosity towards the poor struck a chord with him. He later wrote in a blog post: "Indeed, for the one who accepts what Allah has decreed, and endures his or her trials patiently, there is only good to come from external crises, the greater the crisis, the greater the good, if the believer engages their circumstance with Iman (faith)."

His mother said: "I raised my children to be independent, to have their own view. I questioned his conversion at first ... but he was able to explain it and I was fine with that." At 22, he embraced his new life so fully that he sought a new name. A Pakistani elder from the mosque he attended chose Shahid: martyr. His admiration for Martin Luther King Jr inspired his middle name. His love for his mother led him to take her maiden name. And amid his new identity, he discovered a love of writing and took a job as a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News. The newspaper, which closed last year, is where he met his wife, a Palestinian who arrived at the newspaper as part of a fellowship programme. They were married in 1997 in a traditional ceremony in the Gaza Strip.

After living a few years in Denver, Shahid moved the family to Detroit, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the US. Bolsen worked on his Arabic and took positions in the Islamic Association of North America, helping in outreach efforts and even leading Friday prayers in local prisons, said his wife, who asked to be identified only as Umm Mohammed. But soon their thoughts turned to overseas.

"We wanted to raise our children in a Muslim country, and at the time, the UAE looked like the most ideal place - progressive yet Islamic," she said. Together with their three children, they arrived at Dubai International Airport in 2003 to start a new life. The plan was to open an internet cafe, and they did. They also purchased a minivan to ferry the family around and rented a villa. The children attended public school.

But soon the business began to founder."We were losing business, so we closed it. I had to work and Shahid was pursuing writing," Umm Mohammed said. Her work as a translator at a law firm paid only Dh10,000 (US$2,700) a month, however, and the prospects of living comfortably faded. The villa became a smaller apartment, and the family had to hire an Ethiopian maid to help with the children. The maid, named Fawzia Yousef, later became entangled in the murder case.

Meanwhile, Bolsen was becoming unhappy with life in the UAE. "Shahid went to the UAE thinking this would be a utopia Islamic state," his mother said. He launched a blog on which he ranted about politics, the Middle East and neo-imperialism. He vented his frustrations with the consumerism of the UAE and squalid conditions of labourers. "He was so critical of the way people were being treated and felt so hopeless ... he just wrote and wrote," Mrs Morris said.

On her last visit to the UAE, in December 2005, she noticed something was eating away at Shahid. "He would suffer from these really bad headaches and he became insomniac," she said. In these sleepless nights, Shahid would pore over his books and writing. He would often stay up until the morning prayers, then go to sleep. "On December 31, 2005, he drove me to the airport and tried to convince me to come live with them," she said. But it was not a move she could afford. "After that he seemed to withdraw. I wondered if he was suffering from depression."

The family even considered returning to the US, where the children could receive free education. "I found it hard to meet other westerners or people from my background. So I joined a social networking website," Shahid said during a brief interview at the Federal Supreme Court. Martin Herbert Steiner, 58, also felt alone in Dubai. His wife and daughter were still in Singapore, waiting for him to arrange accommodation for them in the city to which he had just been transferred by his company, Terasaki, which trades in electrical switchboards.

"He was a very kind man who had a lot of respect for all the people he dealt with," said Manu Bankaj, Steiner's only co-worker in the region. Mr Bankaj didn't notice anything odd about Steiner or his relationships. "His wife and daughter were in Singapore and the plan was that they would both move here after six months," he added. In the meantime, Steiner was looking for ways to meet people. According to court documents, he discovered the online profile of Bolsen's maid and contacted her.

The court says the purpose was to arrange a sexual encounter. But Bolsen and his family adamantly disagree. "He was looking for people to connect with," Umm Mohammed says. Either way, police say, it was part of a premeditated plan by Bolsen to lure in Steiner and kill him. The e-mails turned to phone conversations and Steiner and Bolsen, allegedly posing as the maid, agreed to meet on June 12, 2006, after Steiner finished work. According to the court, he had been told he would have a sexual encounter with an Emirati woman.

But Bolsen told the Federal Supreme Court on April 21 last year that he simply intended to talk Steiner out of his sinful ways. Over six hours on the day they were to meet, Steiner and Yousef exchanged 30 text messages and made several phone calls, according to documents provided by his mobile carrier. At about 3pm, Steiner left Dubai and headed to Ajman Marina for his last business meeting. He continued to exchange text messages with Yousef until 6.21pm, when, according to police, they met at a mall in Sharjah.

"What happened that night, no one will ever know," said Umm Mohammed, who, with the children, was visiting her parents in Gaza at the time of the killing. "I just have to believe my husband and what he says." Bolsen told the court that when Steiner arrived at his home, he appeared to have been drinking and became verbally abusive. "He became hostile so I asked him to leave, but he tried to force himself on [the maid]," Bolsen testified.

A struggle followed. Bolsen said he reached for his chloroform, an anesthetic once popular with doctors, that he said he used to help with his insomnia. Bolsen said he intended to sedate Steiner, not kill him. But in the maid Yousef's initial testimony, she said she had stepped out of the room and returned to find Steiner on the bed. She told the Sharjah's Criminal Court of First Instance that Bolsen "said 'do not worry, but say Allahu akbar, for an infidel is dead'."

The day after the killing, police say Bolsen used Steiner's credit cards to buy Dh20,000 worth of electronics. Bolsen later told The National that he intended to sell the items to buy his way out of the country. But by now Steiner's family were looking for him. He had last been seen at 4.30pm on June 12, 2006, and his whereabouts were unknown. For a man who was known to call his wife if he was five minutes late, this was odd - and his wife, Christina, suspected something was wrong.

On June 23, she arrived from Singapore to make a public plea for help in finding her husband. The next day, she noticed her husband's credit card had been used int Dubai. She told police, who were able to retrieve CCTV footage from the stores where the purchases were made. According to court records, the footage showed a bearded white man with a veiled black woman. Within hours, the police arrived at Bolsen's home and arrested him and Yousef. The two were separately questioned and confessed to the killing.

Bolsen told police exactly what he had done: The day after Steiner was killed, Bolsen decided to flee to Oman using the German's identity. He bound the body with a blue cord, folding Steiner's hands across his chest. Then he stuffed the body in a blue suitcase, strapping in tightly with a luggage belt. On June 25, he led police to the body. Christina Steiner has declined to speak to the media since the initial court proceedings. She asked for her husband's body to be cremated and sent to Singapore.

She also adamantly rejected the offer of blood money from Bolsen's family to spare his life. Fawzia Yousef was sentenced to three years and deportation for her role in the killing. Bolsen pleaded guilty on the grounds that it was an accidental death, but was sentenced to death by the Sharjah Criminal Court of First Instance on October 23, 2007. The decision was upheld by the Appeals Court. As required by the law for all cases where the death penalty is sought, his case was sent before the Federal Supreme Court in the capital in September 2008; the federal court handed it back down to the Appeal Court on a legal technicality.

At each court appearance, Bolsen recites the Quran inaudibly while waiting for the judge to call his name. His head is shaved; his beard is untrimmed. He became an imam, leading Friday prayers in Sharjah Central Prison. On Sunday, he escaped from the prison, evading guards for an hour before being caught. His family is now thousands of miles away: his wife and children heard of the murder just days before returning to the UAE. They went back to Colorado, where they have lived since. Linda Morris said she is haunted by her son's fate.

Now it is up to the courts to decide whether Bolsen will remain in prison, go free or face execution. After his attempted escape, a prison source said, that decision is not likely to be made for a long time. myoussef@thenational.ae