Prescription Grudge

At least this much is clear: Somebody entered the Payless Drugs pharmacy on South University Boulevard early in the afternoon on October 9, 1995, and tried to refill a prescription for the painkiller Vicodin. The pharmacist thought the guy looked "Arabic." She also suspected his prescription was being refilled prematurely. When she told the man she'd have to check with the doctor first, he left the store empty-handed.

What's happened since gets fuzzy quick. Start with the name.
"In the Middle East, my name is like Smith or Jones," explains Ali Seyed Kazemi. "There are thousands of us." He's a short, intense man with thick glasses, thinning hair and a round face. To buy his story, you have to believe that the guy who tried to pass the fake prescription probably was named Ali Kazemi, the name police eventually came up with. But not this Ali Kazemi.

Then you have to accept that the three people who later picked him out of a photo lineup were all wrong. "I'm at a loss to explain that," sighs Kevin O'Shaughnessy, Kazemi's lawyer.

It's more than inexplicable. It's a big challenge, alibi-wise. "He wants you to believe that there's another guy out there with his same name and who looks just like him," says a dubious Glenn Davis, the Littleton police detective who investigated the case. "What are the odds of that? If I had showed around the lineup pictures and two out of three, or even one out of three people hadn't been sure, I might not have brought the case to the district attorney. But three out of three? C'mon, Ali."

Many guilty people insist on their innocence. But it is the fact that Kazemi's case seems so hopeless, coupled with his stubborn persistence that others have got it all wrong, that make his predicament unusual. Besides, most everyone other than Kazemi appears eager to get on with life.

"Prescription fraud is a felony," notes Davis. "But in the scheme of things that go on in the world, it's not that big a deal." Arapahoe County prosecutors feel the same way. Recently they offered Kazemi an extraordinary deal. It was more gift than plea bargain, since the district attorney's office would get nothing out of it. The prosecutors said they would not even file charges, and if Kazemi kept his nose clean for a couple of years, the case would disappear. It would be as if he was never arrested. There would be no trace of a crime. Ali Kazemi would be free and clear.

Ali Kazemi firmly declined.
"I don't know what he's thinking," says Davis.
"I did nothing wrong," points out Kazemi.

"Maybe he's right," shrugs Ted McElroy, the Arapahoe County assistant district attorney. "He seems like a nice enough guy."

He apparently wasn't always that way, though. "Ali came to the United States as a young, pampered and spoiled man," says Eugene Keyser, a long-time friend and Denver resident who can speak to Kazemi in his native Farsi. "His father was an important and highly respected Sufi in Iran, so Ali grew up with all this living in luxury and getting respect."

In 1974, at the age of 23, Kazemi left Tehran and came to America speaking not a word of English. He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1980 with a degree in electrical engineering and, four years later, picked up a master's degree.

Despite the excellent education, however, Kazemi has never been employed as an engineer. Today he works for Avis as a counter representative. The reason is a now-fifteen-year-old dispute with his wife that escalated out of control.

Kazemi's marriage to the Boulder woman in 1982 soured quickly, but not before the couple produced a daughter. Following their separation was a series of increasingly bitter custody disputes. In late 1985 Kazemi showed up at his wife's place of employment to try once more to work things out. The meeting turned into another confrontation, and this time Kazemi ended up hitting her. Three months later he was convicted of third-degree assault. The judge acknowledged that the custody issue had driven Kazemi to the assault but sentenced him to two years in prison--a term that the Boulder Camera reported was the most severe ever handed down for a misdemeanor assault.

After serving his time in Boulder, Kazemi bounced around working at odd jobs. Eventually, he says, he took a job with Alamo car rentals in Colorado Springs and, later, Las Vegas. He returned to Colorado in 1995 and began working for Avis in May 1996.

Although the charges pending against Ali Kazemi are simple--prescription fraud--the details of the alleged crime are not. When the Payless pharmacist called to verify the prescription, the physician confirmed what the pharmacist had suspected: The man named on the prescription, Arash Rode, was no patient of his. The prescription appeared to be a fake.

Later, when the police arrived, the pharmacist recalled that the man who'd tried to obtain the Vicodin was familiar. In fact, she said, he'd been in just a couple weeks before to fill a legitimate prescription for Darvon. After checking the pharmacy's records, she came up with a name: Ali Kazemi.

The case was assigned to Glenn Davis, who at the time was working a two-year stint on the South Metro Drug Task Force, on loan from the Littleton police department. He soon determined that there was an Ali Kazemi in the area who had transferred his treatment for a work-related injury from a California doctor to a Denver occupational physician named Edward Hughes. (To confuse matters further, the California doctor's name was Hughes, too.)

Next, Davis ran a check with the state motor vehicles department. He came up with several Ali Kazemis. In a paper line-up prepared with driver's-license photos, two Payless employees and the Denver Dr. Hughes all identified Ali Seyed Kazemi as the man who'd tried to get the illegal Vicodin, although Hughes admitted that he "only saw the suspect on one brief occasion."

Prescription frauds are considered such low-level crimes that the agency originally investigating the Payless incident, the South Metro Drug Task Force, no longer handles them. Instead, they are now shuttled to local jurisdictions for investigation. That could be responsible for what happened to Kazemi next.

Which was nothing.
Davis says that Kazemi was never contacted about being a suspect in the Vicodin case because he didn't change his driver's-license address when he moved from Colorado Springs to Aurora in 1996 and thus couldn't be tracked down. For whatever reason, Kazemi says he never knew anything was amiss until midnight, December 12, 1997, more than two years after the Payless pharmacist called the police.

"I was watching Larry King on CNN," he recalls. "Someone was pounding on my door. I was in my boxer shorts. I got up and looked through the peephole and saw two police officers behind the door. I opened the door and he asked, 'What's your name?' I replied 'Ali.' Then I said, 'What's your name, officer?' They turned around and quickly walked downstairs without saying anything."

It wasn't until two weeks later that he was picked up by the police on the outstanding warrant. After spending a night in jail, he was released on Christmas Eve on $2,000 bond.

Since then, Kazemi has spent tremendous energy trying to prove that he was not the person who entered the pharmacy that day. He says he has never taken prescription drugs, a claim supported by a sheaf of medical records. He says he was never a patient of either the Denver or California Dr. Hughes. That assertion appeared to be confirmed recently when O'Shaughnessy, armed with Kazemi's Social Security number and a signed release, requested his client's medical records from the physicians. Both refused, saying that they may or may not have a patient named Ali Kazemi but that he was not the patient described by O'Shaughnessy, so confidentiality laws prevented them from sharing the medical histories.

"I'm pretty sure there are two Ali Kazemis," concludes O'Shaughnessy. "One of them had a workers' comp claim in California and moved to Colorado. The other is my guy." Citing the doctors' refusal to release medical records, he adds, "There's definitely someone out there by the name of Ali Kazemi without the same Social Security number." He hasn't been found, though.

And, of course, there is the matter of the photo identifications to contend with, something O'Shaughnessy concedes is a serious weakness in his client's case. "That's the most disturbing part," he admits.

The insignificance of the crime has been reflected in the district attorney's handling of it--resulting in more frustration for Kazemi. In the past year his case has been shuffled through several different prosecutors; two weeks ago it was transferred yet again.

To most people associated with the case, which is now more than three years old, Kazemi's decision to refuse the DA's hugely generous plea deal is incomprehensible. "He's taking a real chance," says Davis. "I don't know what's going on with him. I feel the case is solid. Why not just make it go away?"

Kazemi's friend Keyser says the answer most likely lies in his earlier brush with the law, in which Kazemi still feels strongly he was taken advantage of. Says Keyser: "He's still mystified as to what happened to him.