By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Waqas Rehman, a slender, 29-year-old Pakistani man, was moments away from an anticipated sexual rendezvous. He cruised slowly through a Coral Springs Borders bookstore parking lot behind the wheel of a black Mitsubishi Eclipse. With a scraggly goatee and bags under his eyes, Rehman wasn't much to look at, but then, he didn't usually rely on his looks to snare the teenaged girls he desired. His gift, if one can call it that, was an instinctive ability to fabricate personas on the Internet, charming façades that could melt the defenses of unwary young girls and manipulate their emotions. That's how authorities describe him, at least.
Now, on a Thursday morning in early September 2004, this alleged Humbert Humbert of cyberspace was supposed to meet a 17-year-old named Jess. But this time, when the trap was sprung, it was Rehman himself who was the prey.
The e-mailer who had responded so provocatively to Rehman's messages turned out to be not an adventurous high school girl eager to meet cute boys but a burly Coral Springs detective. The cop quickly collared Rehman and slapped the handcuffs on him.
Police had been waiting a month for this moment, ever since Rehman allegedly lured a 12-year-old Coral Springs girl into an assignation. Rehman found himself charged with molesting a minor, whom he had allegedly enticed with e-mail messages. The alleged felony had been in connection with another Internet seduction, another parking lot assignation, but with a girl who was even more vulnerable than his would-be target when he was arrested. Police say Rehman had persuaded the 12-year-old to meet him on August 7, 2004, then brought her to a nearby apartment and sexually assaulted her.
It was the proverbial open-and-shut case, police suggested. Rehman made a detailed confession, according to detectives. He was sent to a Broward Sheriff's Office jail cell to await formal charges by the Broward State Attorney's Office.
In a situation that, for the victim and the victim's family, offers almost nothing in the way of a bright side, the girl's family could at least claim a measure of satisfaction in the man's arrest. With the knowledge that the alleged perpetrator was locked up, facing significant punishment in the criminal justice system, and unable to abuse other girls, the 12-year-old and her parents could begin to try to piece their lives back together.
"My expectations were that, just like the detective had told me, that he'd be held, tried, and sentenced," says Jaemi Levine, the girl's mother.
But the charges never came. Week after week, Rehman sat in jail with no bill of particulars from the State Attorney's Office.
Because prosecutors didn't act, Rehman's public defender could file a motion for his client's release. He had been held in jail more than the statutory period of 40 days, and the judge agreed to let Rehman go without bail.
The Pakistani's last visitor in jail on November 1, the day he was released, was an agent from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That agency of the Department of Homeland Security had already filed an immigration detainer on Rehman after his arrest, a process used by the feds to tag accused criminals for future federal action. But without formal charges being filed, the detainer was dropped. The agent simply served him with a notice to appear later at a routine immigration hearing for overstaying his visa. He would receive, in other words, the same perfunctory treatment as would any of the other estimated 13 million illegal foreigners in the United States.
Rehman, an illegal alien and accused molester, walked out of jail that evening with only his conscience as bail. A day later, prosecutors finally filed charges, like an injured motorist strapping on a seat belt after a collision. But Rehman had disappeared.
He hasn't been seen since.
The case of Waqas Rehman sounds like one of those startling, apocryphal tales told by get-tough-on-crime types hoping to stir up public sentiment and catch the eye of demagogic legislators. But no hyperbole has been necessary to shock children's-rights advocates.
The investigation, which was inspired not by dogged police work but by the victim's older sister (it was she who cleverly entrapped the suspect), was followed by a lackluster prosecution effort and a fatal ignorance on the part of local authorities of federal immigration procedure, critics say.
For the victim and her family, it was a masterstroke of poor timing.
The prosecutor assigned to the case had announced his resignation just about the time he was handed the case, and his boss apparently bobbled the handoff to another assistant attorney general. In addition, the office failed to ascertain the federal government's role in the case, basing its actions on assumptions that were flatly wrong. The federal "detainer" that local authorities assumed would somehow keep Rehman in place was worthless in the absence of formal charges against its target.
Even after prosecutors charged Rehman, there was no apparent sense of urgency in declaring that he was a clear flight risk.
At the heart of this case of bureaucratic and investigative bungling, however, are a wounded young girl and her very angry mother, who for months has hounded prosecutors, elected officials, bureaucrats, private investigators, police, and news reporters about the case.