Trial by Fire

Amanda Alley, Sheri Mock, and John McClellan shared a two-bedroom apartment in Davie. It faced away from the busy 7600 block of Griffin Road and, save for occasional barking dogs, was quiet.

Except for the morning of July 27, 1998.

At 5:27 a.m., Mock and her boyfriend, McClellan, were jolted from slumber by the sound of an explosion and a woman screaming. Half-asleep, Mock thought maybe a car had blown up outside. McClellan jumped out of bed and watched 22-year-old Alley stumble from her smoke-filled bedroom into the kitchen.

Her entire body was on fire.

"John!" she screamed, walking toward the stunned man, arms outstretched. "John!"

All he could see, he'd tell police later, was her open mouth in the middle of a mass of flames.

Without thinking, McClellan grabbed and threw her into a bathroom shower and turned on the water. Just touching her burned his hand, and the heat and thick smoke forced McClellan and Mock to run from the apartment, unable to reenter.

As the couple broke a window and turned on the garden hose, they saw Alley's 41-year-old employer, Kazem Pourghafari, drive up. Pourghafari was an owner of Courtesy Computers, in the same building as the apartment.

To protect him from the flames, McClellan hosed down the hysterical man, who then attempted to crawl into the burning apartment. But with the heat and smoke, Pourghafari couldn't make it more than a few feet inside. He tried again with a wet towel against his face. Then he and McClellan tried to break through a wall. No luck.

Frustrated, Pourghafari called 911 from his cell phone. According to the police transcript, an operator chided him to calm down. "I can't calm down, god damn it!" he yelled. McClellan can be heard shouting "Don't do it, Kaz!"

"I can't let her die, John!" Pourghafari replied. "I might as well die with her!"

There was a fire station right across Griffin Road, so a crew was at the scene within minutes. Firefighters had to physically restrain Pourghafari from trying to reenter the residence.

Alley's body was found in the shower. She had choked to death on soot and smoke. Her bedroom was virtually incinerated. The apartment was uninhabitable. It had been a horrific day, and the sun wasn't even up yet.

Investigators quickly decided that the fire had been set intentionally. That was right around the time they learned more about the Tehran-born Pourghafari and his association with Alley, who grew up in the West Virginia countryside.

Pourghafari, a married man, had been evasive about his relationship with his employee during initial questioning. The day after the fire, when a detective asked if he had ever seen bruises on Amanda left by Phillip, her abusive husband, he demurred. "I don't get close to her like that," he told them.

In fact, Pourghafari had a key to Alley's apartment, police learned, and he regularly spent time in her room. To close friends, he professed to being in love with her. His partner in Courtesy Computers, Tim Woodcock, knew all about their affair: the fact that the pair had a bank account together, that Pourghafari planned to eventually leave his wife, Linda. "Kaz said he had a good thing goin' with [Amanda]," he told police.

Others talked about how smitten Amanda became when Kaz was around.

Police zeroed in on Pourghafari, and in August 1998, they arrested the distraught Iranian and charged him with murder.

Though the investigation and trial got little coverage in the media, for those who were paying attention, the case still has an obsessive fascination. Jurors get goose bumps and choked throats rehashing the details. "It's such a shame," waitress Mary Barnes says of all the unanswered questions that remain.

It's one of the most intriguing and disturbing Broward cases that almost no one has ever heard of — and it still hasn't been solved.

The six-week trial in the spring of 2004 rehashed the events of that terrible day in excruciating detail. The hysterical 911 calls, the weeks of witnesses, and the photos of Alley's charred body are still seared into memory, haunting everyone involved. Most of the arson experts called in to testify can still recall the case, down to the placement of items in Alley's bedroom.

It had been such a terrible way to die.

By most accounts, Pourghafari was crazy about his young mistress. Amanda bought him an expensive lighter engraved with "I Love You" and "Kaz." Police found love letters from Alley to Pourghafari and poems he'd printed out and given her, with sentiments like "I will die before I let you go" and "Will you marry me?"