Longform

What's in a Name?

Page 3 of 6

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.

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Adam Cayton-Holland