What's in a Name?
Dan Heidel met Qusair Mohamedbhai while waiting for the bus. Every weekday morning, Heidel would walk from his apartment to the stop at Ninth and Downing, then catch the #12 bus to the Brown Palace Hotel, where he worked as an assistant comptroller. It was his routine: He knew the people who rode his bus, knew the faces of those who hung out at Diedrich Coffee by the stop, knew the crowd that frequented the area. So when Mohamedbhai showed up at the stop in the summer of 2003, dressed in nice clothes and looking utterly confused, Heidel offered to help the stranger.
"You could tell he was getting ready to go to work," Heidel recalls. "And he had this where-do-I-go-what-do-I-do look on his face. He asked me where the bus went, and when I realized he was going the same way as me, I helped him out, made sure he got to his stop and everything. It was the friendly, neighborly thing to do."
When Heidel saw Mohamedbhai again the next morning, the two struck up a conversation. Heidel learned that Mohamedbhai was a law student at the University of Wyoming who was originally from Edmonton, Alberta, and had a summer internship at the firm of Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison and Lewis. He didn't know many people in Denver and was crashing on the couch of a Wyoming professor who had an apartment in Capitol Hill.
"We became acquaintances," Heidel says. "I got to know a lot about him, what he was doing here, his internship. We traded numbers and would grab a drink every once in a while. He liked to do trivia night at Govn'rs Park. We got to be pretty good friends. Not bosom buddies or anything, but good friends."
"We would just shoot the shit about his life and my life," Mohamedbhai remembers. "We were at the same bus stop every day at the same time. I had his number in my cell phone. He became a friend."
The two kept in touch after Mohamedbhai returned to Laramie for his final year of law school, calling each other occasionally just to check in. After Mohamedbhai graduated and passed the bar both in Wyoming and Colorado, he moved back to Denver to take a job with the firm where he'd interned the previous summer, and he and Heidel quickly resumed their friendship.
Then on June 16, 2004, Heidel learned that Qusair Mohamedbhai was not the mild-mannered, hockey-loving buddy he'd thought, but a terrorist.
The local branch of the National Association of Credit Management, a group devoted to developing better credit practices and methods through industry-specific meetings, was hosting a meeting devoted to check fraud in the hotel industry, and Heidel had been invited to attend by the credit manager of the Brown Palace, Annmarie Pullano. The featured speaker was Genevieve Babcock-Elder, who'd worked at First National Bank of Denver for thirty years before opening Colorado Cheque Connection, a business specializing in background checks, new account inquiries and collections for financial institutions across the country.
Heidel listened as Babcock-Elder shared many anecdotes from her long career, including tales of income-tax scams and a mother-daughter check-fraud operation. And then she turned her attention toward thwarting terrorism.
"She had this black leather portfolio, and from where I was sitting, I could see inside it and see that it was a printout from a computer," Heidel recalls. "She said, 'Let me spell this person's name.' She then spelled the last name Mohamedbhai, and I was a little taken aback but I figured it might be a common name, and then she spelled the first name, Qusair, and I was pretty certain that I knew who this person was, and that it was my friend Q."
As Babcock-Elder continued, the evidence grew.
"The story went on to say how this person went into a Commercial Federal Bank in southeast Denver and tried to open an account. And that made sense. I knew Q was moving into that area, knew he would probably be looking for a bank," Heidel says. "And she kept using the word 'terrorist.'"
The suspected terrorist's Social Security number was from Florida, where terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks had learned to fly. Mohamedbhai had spent a year at the Florida Coastal School of Law before transferring to Wyoming. And other details lined up. Babcock-Elder said the man had lived in Canada and had presented a Wyoming student ID at the bank. A pretty blonde had been at his side -- a tactic terrorists sometimes employ to look more innocuous. Mohamedbhai was seeing a blond woman at the time.
By the time Babcock-Elder said that she'd stopped the terrorist from opening an account -- getting on the phone herself after performing a background check and informing him that she knew he'd committed bank fraud at the same institution eight years earlier -- Heidel was absolutely convinced.
"I was sitting there quite stunned," he recalls. "I was thinking that this friend who knows me, knows my life, is a terrorist. And she was calling him a murderer, a thief and all these awful things, and I didn't know what to do. The meeting was running well over its scheduled time and I needed to leave, so when she started in with another story, I excused myself and left. I walked up the 16th Street Mall back to work instead of taking the shuttle, and I stewed for a bit. I had a lot on my mind."
When Pullano got back to the hotel, Heidel showed her Qusair Mohamedbhai's name in his cell phone. He remembers her recoiling in shock.
"I went home that day and still did not know what to do," Heidel says. "I talked to another friend, someone else who knew Qusair and had a good impression of him, and he didn't believe it at all. He was looking at it as the new form of McCarthyism and was outraged. I was thinking, 'Do I say anything? Do I call the feds? Is this someone who could hurt my family?' I was scared by it. I thought about calling Qusair and telling him, but then I thought, what if he denies it and it's true? If he is this person Genevieve Babcock-Elder put in front of me...was I that deceived?"
Heidel kept stewing.
About three weeks after the NACM presentation, Mohamedbhai called Heidel. The two exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes before Heidel finally broke and told Mohamedbhai everything he'd heard.
If Heidel had been shocked to hear his friend labeled a "terrorist," Mohamedbhai was dumbfounded by the story.
"When he told me what happened, I said, 'Dan, that was a couple weeks ago. Why didn't you tell me sooner?'" Mohamedbhai remembers. "And then there was this silence, and finally Dan said, 'Because I thought it was true.' I felt like I had been hit by a truck."
Qusair Mohamedbhai's family has its ancestral roots in India. When his parents emigrated from Zanzibar to Canada, they were dirt poor, with just $200 and one suitcase between them. Mohamedbhai was born in Edmonton in 1978, his sister almost four years later. Despite the fact that "Canada is pretty white" and his parents are practicing Muslims, Mohamedbhai says they never saw any evidence of discrimination.
"Edmonton, where I grew up, was about 80 percent white, but everyone there was very accepting and multicultural," he explains. "I went to elementary school with everyone, junior high school, high school. I was just one of the guys, playing hockey and everything. I mean, I could skate before I could walk. My family even makes fun of me because I'm so white. My sister recently had a wedding ceremony in India. We took a family vacation out there, and I had never been. And when we got there, she said to me, 'I'm really excited, at least there's going to be one of my white friends at the wedding.' And I was like, 'Wow, you convinced one of your friends to come all the way from Edmonton to this small ceremony in India? Who is it?' And she was like, 'It's you.' When you're born in a country, you're just socialized there."
In 2000, Mohamedbhai decided to move out of the comfort zone where he'd spent the past 21 years and go to law school in Jacksonville, Florida. Studying by the beach sounded pretty good, but the tuition at Florida Coastal was high, and he transferred to Laramie after a year. "Most of the people there were super-good people," he says. "In law school, you find you're judged more on character. I never had any problems in that town. No small-town Wyoming incidents, like you would think."
After September 11, 2001, buddies made a few jabs about his last name, but Mohamedbhai never thought anyone was looking at him any differently, never noticed any problems. Not in Canada, not in Florida, not in Wyoming. Which is why he was stunned to hear from Heidel that he'd been identified as a terrorist in Denver.
"You're wondering, what the hell is going on?" he remembers. "My friend thinks I'm a terrorist? Who is this woman going around saying my name? How many other conferences is she giving?"
Heidel and Mohamedbhai spoke long into the night, and Mohamedbhai finally realized that whatever the hell was going on could be tracked to a failed attempt to open a checking account.
Mohamedbhai had been eager to move to Denver. Most law students at the University of Wyoming are from Wyoming and stay there after graduation, but he wanted to live in a bigger city. With the move, though, came the hassles of setting up a new life.
"I had nothing," Mohamedbhai says with a laugh. "Every place I had lived previously was furnished, so I had a little bit of stuff, but I don't know if I even owned an iron. And all of a sudden I was this 25-year-old lawyer in Denver and had to wear nice shirts to work every day."
In addition to shirts and an iron, Mohamedbhai needed a checking account where he could deposit his first paycheck as a lawyer. So on May 29, 2004, after working out at the gym, Mohamedbhai and Janine Hilsher, a woman he was dating, walked into the Commercial Federal branch at Tamarac and Hampden.
Mohamedbhai, who speaks perfect American English -- outside of a few Canadianisms -- told teller Genesis Anderson that he wanted to open an account. She asked for his identification, and he presented her with his Canadian driver's license, his Social Security card and a Wyoming student ID. Anderson asked a few more questions: his address, telephone number, where he was working, how long he had worked there, how long he had lived in Colorado.
"I remember she asked a lot of questions," says Hilsher, who watched the exchange. "Where he went to school, why he was here, what brought him here or something. I've worked as a teller at a bank before, and it just struck me as a lot of personal questions."
Anderson left the cage for a while, then returned and told Mohamedbhai that he didn't have sufficient identification to open an account. He left and returned about an hour later, armed with a passport and a visa. This time around, he barely made it inside.
"I got about five steps in the bank, and all the tellers were huddled around each other," Mohamedbhai recalls. "I looked the teller in the eyes, and I remember there was this look of fear, just totally scared. She called out to me, 'You cannot have an account here.' She yelled this from across the bank, literally fifteen, twenty feet away. So I was like, all right, screw this, I need to get an account going, need to get my first paycheck deposited, need to pay rent, I don't care about this bank, I'm a new young attorney, woo-hoo, you don't want my business, fine, this is a small problem, I'll go to another bank."
Mohamedbhai went down the street to First Bank, where he opened an account without any trouble.
He'd almost forgotten the bizarre exchange at Commercial Federal -- until Heidel told him that his name had been connected with a terrorist-fraud incident at the bank.
Now, the more he thought about it, the angrier he got. He called his parents, and they said that sort of thing just happens in this country: Americans are racist toward Muslims. But that explanation didn't sit right with Mohamedbhai. He talked to a friend he played volleyball with, a Saudi Arabian man with a thick, Arab accent and a long, bushy beard. The friend fed him the same line, saying that he and his family were hassled every day and that Americans are just racist toward anyone who is Arab or Muslim.
"And that was the idea that stuck in my mind," Mohamedbhai says. "That these Americans are just racist against people with Arab last names, that's just the way it is. But I felt like that wasn't true, and that it shouldn't be like that. And I started getting cheesy and stuff and thinking I'm going to have kids one day, they're going to have my last name, and this has got to stop. That this has never happened to me. And if it's happening to me, what do you think must be going on with these hard-core guys? What about the exchange student from Kuwait?"
Mohamedbhai contacted Ryan Ross, a private investigator often used by his law firm. He asked Ross to run his name -- as well as several variations of his name -- through every database he had access to, to see where the confusion had come from.
"I did the standard database contact-information background check," Ross remembers. "And that certainly did not produce anything that indicated to me that anyone had identified him in the past as a terrorist."
Which meant that the trail started -- and ended -- with Commercial Federal and Colorado Cheque Connection. Stuck, Mohamedbhai asked around his office for the name of a good civil-rights lawyer and was referred to Darold Killmer and Mari Newman. He retained the attorneys, but hesitated about going so far as to file suit. The last thing the somewhat shy Mohamedbhai wanted was to be the face of a prominent racial-profiling case.
"There are obviously worse things that can happen to a person," Mohamedbhai says. "But to me, being called a terrorist, I would rather be called a pedophile or a racist. When you really think about what they are calling you, it's bad. And having an Arabic last name, living in America and having people accuse you of being a terrorist and being a foreigner, it's not a good thing."
On August 3, 2004, Killmer notified both Commercial Federal and Colorado Cheque Connection that his firm was representing Mohamedbhai in connection with the denial of service. A week later, Commercial Federal responded to Killmer's letter by noting that the bank had conducted a "thorough investigation" of the matter, had spoken with all relevant employees, and had determined that Mohamedbhai was denied the account because of insufficient identification.
In her own response, Genevieve Babcock-Elder told Killmer that "I, in my capacity as owner of Colorado Cheque Connection, and as the individual directly involved in the new account inquiry by Commercial Federal Bank, categorically deny all of the allegations involving your client."
But when Zachary Lane, an intern at the office of Killmer, Lane & Newman, had delivered the letter of representation to Babcock-Elder, he'd overheard a comment so odd that Killmer had him make an official statement. As Lane recalled it, "She took the envelope and asked, 'Are you with Killmer?' I told her, 'Yes, I am with Killmer, Lane and Newman.' She then said, 'Well, okay.' Feeling that I had no more business with Ms. Babcock-Elder, I turned and walked toward the door and opened it. As I took my first step through the doorway, I heard her say, presumably to a co-worker, 'This must be about that camel jockey.'"
Killmer had to explain the "camel jockey" comment to Mohamedbhai, who'd never heard the epithet before.
"I've never been one of those people who walks through life looking through a lens of racism," Mohamedbhai says. "You know, the people who when they are slighted in some way, if there's some sort of small injustice, they think that person must be racist. But ever since this happened, I've found myself thinking that way -- and it sucks. Like if the bartender takes too long to take my order or ignores me, I don't find myself thinking, 'Oh, well, they must be busy.' I find myself wondering if they're racist against Arabs. There is this new distrust in me, and that's one of the worst things that has come out of this."
Finally, the purported camel jockey had had enough. As Killmer pointed out, how could Mohamedbhai be a decent attorney standing up for the rights of others if he didn't even stand up for his own? "This case reflects the sad fact that illegal discrimination still poisons the lives of good, honest people in many aspects of their day-to-day lives," Killmer says.
On March 22, 2005, Killmer and Newman filed suit on Mohamedbhai's behalf against Commercial Federal -- now Bank of the West -- and Colorado Cheque Connection, charging "blatant racial profiling, slander and race-based refusal of service."
Genesis Anderson declined to talk with Westword. But in a deposition, she said that when Mohamedbhai asked to open an account, she followed standard bank protocol, first calling ChexSystems to run a background check (no cautionary information came up) and then Colorado Cheque Connection. Genevieve Babcock-Elder fielded the second call.
Once she heard Mohamedbhai's name, Babcock-Elder immediately started talking about terrorism. "I stayed on the phone with her for approximately three to five minutes," Anderson testified. "And during those three to five minutes, she was going -- relating everything that I was telling her in terms of the gentleman, his name and everything -- she was relating that back to 9/11 and, you know, the fact that this could be -- I don't know -- you know, terrorist-related....
"Ms. Babcock-Elder told me that Mr. Mohamedbhai's Social Security number had been recently issued in Florida, that Florida had a direct connection with the September 11, 2001, terrorist operations, and that some of the terrorists involved in September 11, 2001, events had trained in Canada and had entered the country through Canada, where Mr. Mohamedbhai had last lived. She then asked whether Mr. Mohamedbhai was accompanied by anyone, and told me that terrorists sometimes used Caucasian companions to make themselves look less conspicuous.... I made the decision not to open the personal checking account because I believed Ms. Babcock-Elder's statements that Mr. Mohamedbhai was a potential terrorist."
Babcock-Elder, who declined to speak with Westword, has denied saying that Mohamedbhai was a potential terrorist during that phone call with Anderson.
According to Bradley Ross-Shannon, Babcock-Elder's attorney, Colorado Cheque Connection handles between 25,000 and 30,000 calls each year on new-account inquiries. "And as far as I know, this is the first time there has ever been any sort of litigation," he says. "Colorado Cheque Connection is not to blame. It's the bank's responsibility. There was no proper identification given that day, and so, pursuant to the requirements of the business, a caution code was given. It's the bank's responsibility from there. The dispute is over recollections, and we dispute the teller's recollections."
Ross-Shannon hired Steven Linstrom, a former investigator with the Denver District Attorney's Office, to look into Babcock-Elder's handling of the background-check call. "The recent issuance of the Social Security number would be a 'red flag' inasmuch as a recently issued Social Security number indicates that the party is either a minor (juvenile), an appropriately documented resident alien, a naturalized citizen, or possibly a fraudulently issued or obtained SSAN," Linstrom determined in his report. "Therefore, additional questions would have to be asked, such as what type of identification is being presented, date of birth, how long has the party been in state, previous state residences, etc. Upon learning that Mr. Mohamedbhai had Canadian ID, had previously resided in Wyoming and did not have Colorado identification, a 'caution' based on the defendant's experience would have been totally appropriate."
In addition to conducting background checks, Colorado Cheque Connection regularly faxes alerts to hundreds of banks and financial institutions, as well as law-enforcement agencies. Under federal law, when a bank employee detects possible criminal offenses, he is obligated to submit a Suspicious Activity Report. Anderson never submitted an SAR, she testified, because when Colorado Cheque Connection sent a fax warning about Qusair Mohamedbhai, the terrorist, she thought that was sufficient. Colorado Cheque Connection denies ever sending such a fax.
Mohamedbhai finds it disturbing that a fax depicting him as a terrorist could have been placed on the desks of tellers and law-enforcement officials across the country. What if that fax should resurface later in his career? If his friend happened to hear Mohamedbhai referred to as a "terrorist" at an NACM meeting, how far could the trail go?
Babcock-Elder has denied referring to Mohamedbhai as a terrorist at that meeting. And besides, any statements made there were "private" and "confidential," says Ross-Shannon. "The plaintiff's damages, if any, were caused by Dan Heidel's false and inaccurate statements which he attributed to defendant Genevieve Babcock-Elder."
Babcock-Elder did admit to using the term "camel jockey" during depositions. "The plaintiff is not seeking any damages from that encounter, so it is irrelevant," Ross-Shannon says. "It's a red herring. It's something they want to use to inflame the jury, but it has no relevance."
Mohamedbhai's attorneys feel otherwise.
"When Babcock-Elder spewed that 'camel jockey' comment, her true motivations were immediately revealed," says Mari Newman. "There is no doubt that she racially profiled Mr. Mohamedbhai."
In June, a California jury awarded $61 million to a pair of Lebanese-American FedEx drivers who claimed they were continually harassed by a manager who called them "camel jockeys" and "terrorists." That award was recently whittled down to $12.4 million, and the figure is still under appeal.
"This is a lawsuit about money," says Ross-Shannon. "He's seeking money. And I think it's interesting to note that Mohamedbhai has actively publicized the case. When the lawsuit was filed, he went on TV, there were articles in the paper. I think that's of note."
The story got far more play in Canada, where it ran in papers across the country, than it did in Colorado, where Mohamedbhai's case is now set for a July trial.
"I'm not looking for my payday for this, but I know how the law works," Mohamedbhai says. "The bank and Colorado Cheque Connection don't think that what happened in this case is a big deal because there's no real quantifiable damage. I wasn't fired from my job, nothing bad happened to me economically. But say someone was sexually harassed at work just up to the point where they are not actually fired. Are there no damages there? When Rosa Parks was asked to move to the back of the bus and refused, were there damages there? No. None. But yet her actions changed the way the law perceives racism, how we gauge discrimination."
"It's just really disappointing to me that in this day and age, someone like Ms. Babcock-Elder can hold to such archaic values, judge someone purely by their name and turn them into a criminal," says Heidel, who now works in Colorado Springs and no longer catches the bus in Capitol Hill. "The real troubling thought is that this is just one instance. It makes you wonder how many other people this has happened to."
"The funny thing about all this is my life is a complete open book to the Department of Homeland Security," Mohamedbhai concludes, pointing out that he has to renew his visa every year. "If I was a terrorist, they would know about it. The government of Canada and the U.S. allow for professional exchanges like mine, labor traded freely. The Department of Homeland Security, they swipe my passport and my whole life comes up for them to see."
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