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?"

Like Woodcock, Courtesy Computer secretary Lisa Hubert took a dim view of the intraoffice affair. She scolded her friend Alley and asked Pourghafari, "Are you fucking stupid?"

He answered that he was in love with Alley.

"I'm not saying he wasn't," she told detectives. "But what man who's 40 years old would not fall in love with a 21-year-old? He had [wife] Linda, he had two kids, he had a business. They had a life. You just don't walk away from your whole life for a piece of ass."

Alley's best friend, Denise Taylor, described a young woman happy and in love. Kaz had bought Amanda an engagement ring, she told police. They'd talked about moving to a farm in Virginia or Kentucky and starting a family. "She even had a little girl's name picked out," she said.

Amanda was "radiant" when she was with Kaz, Taylor explained. "She glowed. You could tell he made her feel wanted, loved, needed."

But investigators had a different take on the relationship: Fearing that his wife would hear about it, prosecutors said, the computer expert was under pressure to break it off with Amanda. And, some witnesses testified, Kaz's mistress was becoming "bitchy" and making material demands. She allegedly expressed the thought that Kaz should buy her a new car.

Investigators saw Pourghafari's attempts to minimize his intimate relationship with Alley as damningly deceptive. Then they discovered that gasoline had been present in Alley's bedroom, proving to police that the fire had been started on purpose.

When they also found gasoline on one of the black leather dress shoes Pourghafari wore that day, the cops knew they had their man. It was a trace, amounting to one drop, the defense would later argue; it had been what you'd expect on your shoe if a droplet fell from the hose at a gas station or if you stood atop a fresh stain while fueling. But for investigators, it was the crucial piece of evidence.

On August 4, Pourghafari went to the Davie police station, where he was interviewed by a pair of detectives. They showed him the love letters and poems found in Amanda's room. They told him gas had been detected on one of his shoes. Pourghafari had no explanation but declined to answer more questions without an attorney. So he was placed under arrest.

"I did not know, to the last minute, that I was a suspect," he says.

In the Broward County Jail, Pourghafari, who went from lapsed Muslim to born-again Christian during his two-week stint there, knew he faced execution or life in prison. Luckily for him, he called the right man: Mike Dutko, one of his clients at Courtesy Computers, at his law firm. Pourghafari was released on a $100,000 bond, and Dutko began to marshal a defense.

Dutko started to look for other scenarios. What explanation could there be other than one that implicated his client in a horrific death by fire?

There had been a burglary a week before the murder — in which someone stole jewelry from Amanda's room and a hidden set of keys disappeared — that had prompted McClellan to change the locks. There had also been a harsh breakup between Amanda and her ex-husband, Phillip Alley, whom she had accused of leaving dead flowers on her windshield and of putting sugar into her car's crankcase. Theirs had been a tumultuous relationship.

After Phillip Alley confronted his wife on May 17 of that year, backhanding her in the face, Amanda got a restraining order.

In a deposition, Phillip Alley admitted striking Amanda on more than one occasion. "I'd slap her in the mouth and... I'm not proud of it," he said.

However, Alley and his girlfriend, Angela Pumphrey, both provided cops the same story: She and her two sons spent the night of July 26-27 at his Hallandale Beach apartment. He never left, according to Pumphrey and Alley's roommate; in fact, he didn't own a car. She remembered him hitting the snooze button of the alarm clock at 6:30 a.m.

Veteran prosecutor Brian Cavanagh, who sounds like he's still losing sleep over the case, dismisses the jilted-husband scenario.

"He had a rock-solid alibi," Cavanagh says of Philip Alley. "He had nothing to do with it."

Pourghafari and his wife had matching stories as well: how he'd kissed her good-bye at around 5:10 a.m. and driven to the office, where he noticed smoke.

Pourghafari told police it wasn't unusual at all for him to get to the office early, maybe to have a cup of coffee with Amanda. He said that he had left his house an hour early to get his truck's brakes worked on that day, which was confirmed by his mechanic.

Since Alley was known to smoke two packs of Marlboro Reds a day, a smoldering cigarette emerged as the initial culprit, but it quickly became apparent there was no evidence cigarettes had anything to do with the fire.

Instead, Dutko emphasized the testimony of Charlie Alligator Billie, the former tenant in Alley's room, who told detectives that he'd kept a motorcycle there, suggesting that there may have been fuel residue left behind. Billie said he had complained about numerous electrical and wiring problems when he'd lived there. (He concluded his statement with this unsolicited comment: "I just, uh, honestly really do believe in my heart the man did do this crime, did murder the girl... And, uh, I just, ya know, totally distrust this person.")

The state filed first-degree murder and arson charges in June 1999. The gasoline, the illicit affair and subsequent cover-up, and Pourghafari's appearance at the early-morning crime scene was enough evidence, a grand jury agreed.

The state's case was circumstantial but clear-cut. Pourghafari was a married man with children, in love with a woman half his age. His wife would eventually find out.

From McClellan's offhand remark about Alley's alleged discontent, the prosecution decided it had located a motive: Pourghafari's young mistress was pressuring him for money and maybe for a deeper commitment. Worried that the situation would spiral and his wife would discover the affair, he decided to set the fire, they deduced.

If he was a murderer, Pourghafari appeared to be a repentant one. Witnesses who encountered Pourghafari in the days after Alley's death said he was clearly grief-stricken. His mechanic testified that, when Kaz brought his truck back for more repairs the day of the murder, he was distraught and teary-eyed.

Pourghafari ended up taking Alley's body home to West Virginia to her family, apologizing profusely for failing to rescue their daughter and paying all expenses. It failed to impress her sister, Diana Kay Perdue.

"I believe in my heart that Kaz killed my sister, and I believe that he should pay with his life for committing this murder," she told police, though they noted Pourghafari even purchased the burial plot next to his mistress', intending it for his own future grave.

At least one juror, Mary Barnes, thought Kaz was being targeted because of his heritage.

"I really sincerely think they pinpointed him because he was from the Middle East," Barnes says. "Honest to God."

Dutko also believes Kaz's heritage may have been reason enough for some to feel uncomfortable around him. "He bears a physical resemblance to Saddam Hussein," he says.

Kaz Pourghafari was almost 18 when the Iranian navy sent him to study abroad in 1978. He didn't know English but with help from translators took electronics courses. When the shah fell and the ayatollah came to power in 1980, he decided to defect. He'd already married Linda. When he officially dodged the draft during the Iran/Iraq war, a death warrant was issued for him in his home country. He never again saw the family he left behind.

He attended college in Minnesota, where he got a digital engineering degree by relying on textbooks, Webster's, and a Persian/English dictionary. He and Linda moved to South Florida in 1981 and bought an acre in Plantation. Pourghafari built a house there by consulting library books. He joined with Woodcock, who had started a computer company in his garage, and by 1998, Courtesy Computers on Griffin Road had 12 employees.

The accent he took from Iran remains, as well as a guileless way of speaking that Dutko says police exploited. "You can learn a language, but it takes decades to really appreciate nuances — and every nuance was spun against him in this investigation."

Pourghafari now says that he didn't want to disclose the affair at first but never hid the fact that the two were close and that he was "a support person in her life," as he told police. "I'm not saying a physical relationship wasn't there," he adds today. "But it's oceans apart from what people think."

Dutko and defense fire investigator John Lentini went after the prosecution arson expert, claiming that fire departments like Davie's still use methods issued in the 1980s via the National Bureau of Standards but widely debunked today. Basic assumptions once accepted as gospel truth — such as insisting that spalled concrete and crazed glass are caused by rapid heating (code words for arson) when such conditions are actually caused by rapid cooling — are now being reconsidered.

"Guys are taught myths, year after year after year," says Lentini, a veteran investigator who has worked with the Innocence Project on cases involving defendants on death row for arson crimes for which they were ultimately exonerated.

"In the fire investigation business," he continues, "the people who do the work are not scientists; they're cops. The guy may or may not have gone to college, and if he did, he probably majored in criminal justice, not science."

In Pourghafari's case, the investigator was Davie fire marshal and former police officer Jarred Wiseman, who had had 40 hours of training in "fire chemistry" and 40 in "cause and origin." His lack of experience may have been a factor in the trial, had he not already left the force amid charges that he sold city-issued radios and scanners on eBay.

Prosecutor Cavanagh credits his adversaries' skill in placing doubt in the juries' collective mind. "The evidence is what it is," he sighs. "I don't want to criticize the jury. The defense had a magnificent lawyer and highly paid experts to testify."

Dutko says that, as part of his investigation, he was spending Saturdays boning up on fire physics, scouring every report and document about the case. But it wasn't until November 2002 that he noticed something useful to the defense.

After the fire was out, he learned, crews set up PPVs — positive pressure ventilators — to blow smoke outside. The huge fans are heavy, Dutko read, and they're full of gas. They're even refilled by hand from a gas can. When Dutko learned that at least one PPV had been used in the threshold of Alley's bedroom that day, he knew the contamination in the bedroom could have come from there.

Dutko says he realized then that he had a solid instance of reasonable doubt on his hands, maybe even enough to clear his client.

"They forgot to tell anybody about it for two years afterward," Lentini says. "You always wonder when you learn that kind of stuff [just] before a trial, did they screw up or were they hiding the ball?"

The expert hired by the prosecution, forensics expert John DeHaan, dismisses the PPV theory: "You can't have gasoline vapors from a fan penetrating waterlogged debris," he says. "And the roommates' description of the rapidity and size all fit with an accelerated fire."

DeHaan says he's no stranger to the rampant bad science that leads to innocent people accused of setting fires. He's written books decrying it, he says. But he still believes Pourghafari probably got away with murder.

"The prosecution was focused on the right guy," he contends. "I thought the case was sound." All the facts, he says, "fit with a fire deliberately set on the bed."

In his official report, DeHaan noted that gasoline had been detected in the carpet and the underlying pad of the bedroom, as well as on the shorts Alley was wearing.

What about the possibility of an accident? Could Alley have died because of some weird electrical mishap?

Cavanagh shrugs dismissively. "It certainly would have had to have been a strange accident," he says. "And it's particularly coincidental that he [Pourghafari] just happened to be right there within seconds after it happened."

Dutko formulated a persuasive alternate theory, bolstered by an unexplained laceration on Alley's head and a charred piece of wood lying across what was left of her bed. The large headboard above the old waterbed and its set of halogen lights could have ignited the blaze, possible accelerated by the gasoline traces investigators had found, he argued. The bed set was even reconstructed for the jury's convenience. Improperly attached to the wall, the halogen light fixture could have fallen, landed atop the bed, and sparked the blaze, explaining the wood found on the bed as well as Alley's head injury.

Ultimately, it came down to the kinds of narratives presented by the prosecution and defense.

The prosecution's sweeping murder scenario, Dutko says, "required huge leaps of logic: 'He loves her, so therefore he doused her with gasoline and killed her. '"

Juror Mary Barnes notes that the night before, Amanda and Kaz went to a movie (Saving Private Ryan) and out to dinner (Longhorn Steakhouse) before he took her home.

"And then he'd go back the next morning and kill her? It's outrageous. I know in my heart that he didn't do that."

Although the jurors were forced to grope to understand the prosecution's explanation of Pourghafari's motives, the defense scenario seemed to make sense: Kaz was a man in love, and he appeared to behave accordingly.

Lentini agrees: "What's wrong with this case is that nobody did a reality check, just stood back and say, 'Does this make sense?'"

Still, as the trial began after six years of delays, acquittal appeared to be a long shot.

"Oftentimes, people who may have the best intentions and may be operating under what they think are noble, moral motives form an opinion and refuse to consider the rest of the information," Dutko says. "A lot of times, injustices occur, and that's exactly where this was headed, I'm convinced."

Ready for the worst, Dutko made plans for a penalty phase of the trial. "We had to be prepared for the jury to convict him," he says. But Dutko felt an inexplicable confidence.

After closing arguments, Pourghafari was told that it could take another two to three weeks for the jury to sift through the evidence and reach a decision.

Three hours, 15 minutes later, Dutko got a call on his cell phone: Get back to court. Pourghafari was frantic. In fact, he was trembling when the jury assembled in Judge Alfred Horowitz's courtroom on April 22, 2004, to read the verdict.

The jury left the deliberation room and filed into their seats. His head back, Pourghafari prayed out loud. Barnes remembers, "He was saying, 'Oh please, dear God.' The whole courtroom could hear him."

The bailiff read the verdict: Pourghafari was found not guilty on both counts. He put his head in his hands and cried. His wife came over and hugged him. Elated, Pourghafari hugged Cavanagh. "He was misled," Pourghafari says.

Prosecution witnesses were stunned. "I found it really hard to believe," DeHaan says. "During the trial, I thought, 'It looks pretty bad for him. '"

Juror Robert Bowers, a 38-year Publix employee retired since 2000, says he'll never forget it. "Extraordinary. It's an awesome responsibility to know your vote could affect a man's life."

"It was like we were just one big brain," Barnes marvels. "All of us thought the same way. It was just amazing. Truly amazing."

To keep her job at Jerry's Diner, she didn't take a day off for two months afterward. "I was worn out, but at least I was able to go home and sleep at night. I felt really good when I walked out of that courtroom. We all found him innocent because we all thought he was innocent."

Juror Salvador Rocafort says he respected Cavanagh a great deal ("If I was a movie director, I would cast him!" he says). But he adds, "When the prosecution finished, my reaction was, 'This just doesn't cut it. '"

In a post-9/11 world, Pourghafari didn't take the stand in his own defense. "I came to the realization that his greatest problem was communication," Dutko explains, "and I was concerned that if he came across as uncertain or ambiguous, it could have undermined everything."

But jurors said they were aware of his Middle Eastern background.

"When you see someone of that nationality, 'terrorist' does come to mind," Bowers concedes. "But the evidence was overwhelming. He wasn't at the scene. The information and the eyewitnesses and the time frame just didn't match up."

Bowers, who attributes the death to "sheer accident," remains convinced the right decision was made. "This man couldn't possibly have pulled off this crime," he says. "I think they had him pegged as guilty right from the very beginning without even checking the facts."

Barnes found the prosecution's case extremely weak. "Without a doubt," she maintains, "he did not do what they said he did."

The jurors were dismissed as Pourghafari and Dutko remained inside, but when the doors opened and the pair entered the hallway, all 12 surrounded them. Some hugged the man they'd just found not guilty. "Each woman, and most of the men," Dutko remembers. "Many were quite emotional. They all stood in the hallway and asked about taking him to lunch."

"He bought dinner for everyone," Bowers recalls. "He was so apologetic and thankful and really grateful. A real nice fellow to talk to."

Dutko opted out. "The exhilaration of the victory was exceeded only by exhaustion and a sense of relief," he says. "I wasn't really anxious to go to a restaurant with loud talking — I just wanted to come back here and shut the door and process it all."

A couple of hours later, defense investigator Ron Cacciatore called. "You're not going to believe what I just saw — the jury is toasting Kaz, and they want to come over and talk to you!"

Pourghafari and ten of the 12 jurors filed into Dutko's office, and a bottle of champagne was opened. "They were entertaining and regaling each other with memories of the case," he says. "And mocking me and Brian Cavanagh." He laughs and shakes his head. "It was like they didn't want the case to end! An experience like I've never known before. That case was my Super Bowl."

Cavanagh is still miffed at the outcome and the celebratory conclusion. "They probably would've taken O.J. Simpson out for dinner too!" Cavanagh says now. He didn't object to Pourghafari's being out on bond, but he takes issue with the way he was "able to wander like Peter Pan in the halls." Such contact can be a factor in a trial, he suggested.

"Your typical murder defendant isn't intermingling with jurors in the hallway," says Cavanagh (who has no plans to continue the search for Amanda's murderer). But Rocafort says they were forbidden from as much as making eye contact with Pourghafari during the trial.

The celebration raised a lot of eyebrows around the courthouse.

"They treated him like a celebrity," Cavanagh says. "I found it disgusting."

"It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing that happened," Rocafort says, adding that at the trial's conclusion, the judge gave the jury permission to speak to anyone they chose.

"It seemed I had gained wings," Pourghafari says today. Living in fear for months "was like walking around with a piano strapped to your back."

A few weeks ago, Kaz and Linda Pourghafari celebrated their 27th anniversary. On the way to the restaurant that night, she called Dutko to thank him for making it all possible. "She didn't like what he had done," Dutko opines, "but, by God, she knew he wasn't a murderer."

"Our marriage is getting stronger and stronger," Kaz says. "As we got older, we learned to talk. We never had before. And our finances are slowly coming back."

The ultimate irony of the case may be the fact that a year and a half ago, Dutko himself became a suspect in connection with a suspicious fire.

In October of 2005, Hurricane Wilma left Dutko's Fort Lauderdale home and office without power. He and his wife decamped, by car, to their second place in North Carolina, telling his staff he'd soon be enjoying a cold drink and a hot shower.

After tinkering with a golf cart that had trouble starting, he went into town for lunch. A neighbor called him with the news that his garage was on fire, started by fumes from the golf cart.

The Fire Department put out the blaze, but in the early morning, a hot spot left unextinguished caused the fire to rekindle. "The entire house burned to the ground," Dutko says. He phoned Lentini when it looked like local officials were starting to finger him for arson.

"He called me all upset, telling me his dogs had almost died," Lentini recalls. "He said, 'They're pointin' at me.' They thought Dutko set the second fire because he didn't want to deal with a partial loss. Good theory, huh?"

"They never said they were suspicious because I was a defense attorney," Dutko says, "but they damned sure acted like it. I could see quick opinions being formed."

When Lentini arrived, fire officials regarded him skeptically as a friend of Dutko's. Finally, Lentini managed to convince a state investigator that the fire had been a common rekindle — and not intentionally set.

"Much of it is a pride thing, a respect thing" in the industry, Lentini maintains. "Guys go nuts if you disagree with them. Then they say, 'You can disagree with me, but you have to respect me.'

"Well, after a while, pal, I'm going to disrespect you. Sending someone to prison who didn't belong there — that's about as bad as you can get."

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton