Trial by Fire

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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.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton