After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, on rare nights he fell asleep, Nathan Powell dreamed of poisonous frogs and people on fire. He stopped taking cabs because he thought the drivers might be terrorists. Then he began producing a film about Afghanistan. And then, not long after, the Afghanistan-born director of the film, Jawed Wassel, was found in a shallow grave, chopped into little pieces
THIS MUCH IS CERTAIN: On the night of October 3 of the year 2001, a man named Nathan Powell brutally killed a man named Jawed Wassel. The causes of death noted by the coroner included two stab wounds in Jawed’s back and signs of “blunt force trauma” that included broken facial bones and an “eggshell type” fracture of his skull. The coroner’s job was complicated because he was working from fragments. As he stated in his report, speaking in the eternal present tense of dictation, “body parts are received separately and these consist of a torso, a severed head, and dismembered upper and lower extremities.” The pieces of Jawed Wassel arrived in various bags and boxes. The torso was in Box 1, Bag A. In Box 2, Bag B, the coroner found “a dismembered lower extremity including upper leg, lower leg, and foot.” In Bag D of the same box, he found bloodstained bath towels and socks and a V-neck pullover shirt of the Club Monaco brand, along with a segment of blue hacksaw blade with bone tissue still adhering to the teeth. In this box he also found sponges, paper towels, a Brillo pad, and one bloodstained hand towel “with a Christmas holiday pattern.” Jawed’s head arrived in a refrigerator drawer. “The bony portion of the neck is transected through the body of the fourth cervical vertebra. The right arm is dismembered by incision of the skin and soft tissues including muscle, tendon, nerve, and blood vessels… Sectioning of the brain reveals typical distribution of gray and white matter and deep cortical structures.” These things are true. They are solid. The ventricles of Jawed’s brain were not dilated. His cerebellum, pons, medulla, and brain stem were all “unremarkable,” which is the word scientists like to use because normal is too vague and easy to dispute. His paratracheal soft tissues were unremarkable. The endocardium of his heart was unremarkable. His aorta was unremarkable and his vena cava was unremarkable and his pulmonary vasculature was also unremarkable. And that is all I can tell you that is certain and solid.
This is a story for our time, dark and violent and complicated almost beyond understanding. In one version of the story, the Twin Towers fall and raise a cloud of madness and paranoia that sends Nathan Powell, a man with a young daughter and no criminal record, off on his own personal war on terrorism. He commits an act of senseless murder that makes sense to him, which has both narrow legal implications in terms of his motive and also larger implications in terms of the horror all around us. In the second version, there’s little sense and no point in puzzling over it. There’s nothing but greed and cunning and a monstrous attempt to use the falling towers to blame the victim, and Jawed Wassel is the first casualty of a phony war. Either way, Nathan Powell has pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, and the difficult truth behind his terrible crime becomes a warning sign of the world we entered on September 11, 2001.
First, Nathan Powell’s version of the story. This is how he has told it to me, to the police, to his lawyer, to several psychologists, and to a polygraph examiner. He’s also written it out numerous times. Although some versions are more detailed than others, the essential story has varied little.
In 1996, after a troubled childhood, a couple of failed relationships, and a few stints at studying film at Columbia and Hunter College, Nathan was thirty-three and living in New York when he started working with an Afghan immigrant named Jawed Wassel on a film called FireDancer. He was the producer and Jawed was the writer and director, and they split their deal down the middle, fifty-fifty. In 1997, Jawed went to Afghanistan and came back with stories of fighting against the Taliban with the Northern Alliance. Nathan says he saw pictures of Jawed with an AK-47 and also heard Jawed making anti-American declarations—that the U.S. was responsible for the suffering in Afghanistan because Ronald Reagan supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union but then abandoned them, or that the U.S. didn’t care about Afghans so much as an oil pipeline through Uzbekistan. But Nathan didn’t give it much thought because that kind of talk was typical in artsy circles, and anyway he’d heard the same kind of thing many times from his father, a banjo-playing socialist who worshiped Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
In 1999, Nathan and Jawed went to Washington, D.C., to start shooting their film and immediately ran into many troubles, such as a huge squabble over a line in the script that suggested that one of the characters in the movie might not be a virgin. This led to physical threats and a lot of talk about honor killing, the tribal custom of avenging stains on a family’s name with blood. Around that time, the lead actor was replaced with Baktash Zaher, who had trained to be a pilot at a flight school in Florida. And members of a Taliban delegation to Washington stayed at the house of one of the Afghans supporting the production, sharing quarters with a couple of crew members.
In November 2000, Jawed mentioned that his contacts in northern Afghanistan had offered to arrange an interview with Osama bin Laden. When Nathan told another friend about this, the man offered to pose as a journalist and kill bin Laden, so Nathan tried to contact the CIA through an acquaintance named Marc Palmer, who brushed him off.
In June 2001, Nathan and Jawed attended a meeting with another FireDancer producer named Kate Wood, and Jawed told them that he was going to Afghanistan to make a documentary and please not to tell anyone where he was going. When he came back six weeks later, he was limping and wouldn’t answer any questions.
Then the planes hit the Twin Towers. Nathan had a clear view of the whole thing from the window of his loft just across the East River, sitting there with his wife and their four-year-old daughter. At one point he used binoculars and saw a person jump. Then he talked to Jawed on the phone, and Jawed said America was finally getting a taste of its own medicine.
On TV, Nathan saw pictures of Arabs in Jersey City celebrating the attacks. The next day, he says, he saw some Arabs on his own street pumping their fists and cheering. A few days later, he went to Jawed’s house and found Jawed watching the news with Baktash and his sister, Vida Zaher-Khadem, who was Jawed’s associate director. When they started glancing at the screen and “whispering among themselves in Farsi,” it made him suspicious. What were they hiding? Then Jawed said the CIA must have organized the attacks to provoke a war and bail out the floundering Bush administration.
Later there was a disturbing meeting with Jawed and a man named Eric Rayman, who argued that the movie should say “something positive” about the Taliban. Nathan couldn’t believe it. What was going on here? Jawed had always said he opposed the Taliban, but maybe it had all been a horrible lie. And what about Baktash training at that flight school in Florida? Why didn’t Baktash ever actually become a pilot?
Over the next few weeks, Nathan couldn’t sleep or fell into vivid nightmares. He stopped taking cabs because he thought the cabdrivers might be terrorists. He made plans to leave the city, but he didn’t tell people because he was afraid they’d think he was crazy.
All through this, Jawed was pushing him to use the attacks to promote FireDancer. At first he thought it was a horrible idea, but an investor named Tom Fox encouraged him, and he was still so emotionally invested in the movie himself that he sent faxes to 60 Minutes, 20/20, and the New York Daily News. When the Daily News asked to interview Jawed, Nathan issued an ultimatum: Denounce the Taliban or else I’ll tell the investors the kinds of things you’ve been saying about America and the CIA. Jawed said he didn’t want to say anything “political.” They must have argued for forty minutes.
And freaky things kept happening. One day six agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration appeared at Nathan’s door and asked to search the files of the moving company that shared his loft. (Nathan worked there answering phones.) Another day, four police officers showed up to poke around, saying they had gotten a 911 call. At night Nathan dreamed of poisonous frogs and burning people who screamed without making a sound.
On September 30, saying he was afraid for their safety, he put his wife and daughter on a plane to Seattle.
On the morning of October 3, Jawed called to say the Daily News article had come out. Still hoping for the best, Nathan ran downstairs and bought a stack of copies. But there was just one line about the Taliban “holding 18 million to 20 million people hostage” and another saying that FireDancer “couldn’t have been made anywhere else but in America” before Jawed ruined it all by saying that the Afghans were “pawns ... for the Americans.”
At around six that night, Nathan met Jawed at a subway station, and out of the blue Jawed mentioned an idea for a movie about an honor killing. Then Jawed asked what Osama bin Laden would do to Nathan if he knew about the plot to kill him by posing as a journalist—and suddenly Nathan realized that al Qaeda had killed the famous Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud exactly the same way. Jawed must have given them the idea! So it was true—Jawed was in league with the Taliban!
By the time they got to Nathan’s loft and Jawed pulled a contract out of his backpack, telling him that since they’d been disagreeing so much, it was time for him to take over the film, Nathan was already on the brink of losing control. He said he’d never sign, that he’d tie the movie up in court and it would never see the light of day, and Jawed retaliated with the fatal threat that pushed Nathan over the edge: “With one phone call or one letter, you will have no family!”
And Nathan did what he felt he had to do—what any good husband and father and patriot would have done if he had walked in his shoes for the last month through the dust of all those vaporized buildings and people.
Of course, Jawed Wassel’s friends and relatives and defenders view this version of events as vile, repugnant, and offensive. What a preposterous story! What a pack of lies! With one voice, they insist that Jawed was a kind and peaceful man who spoke four or five languages, who loved poetry and European films, who dedicated himself to telling the story of Afghanistan through movies. He used to say that art was the best way to “thread the needle of human understanding,” one friend remembered. At least three of his American friends said he was a great patriot who especially appreciated the freedom of expression that gave him a chance to tell his story. His brother, Khaled, told me that when he thought about Jawed, he remembered his brother as a man who always tried to do the right thing. The suggestion that he would bad-mouth the United States or support the Taliban is beyond insulting—it’s another violation.
“If Nathan’s claiming that Jawed was some sort of Taliban or terrorist,” a cinematographer named Bud Gardner told me, “that’s the ultimate misnomer and a complete piece of crap.”
Contents of Not Guilty by Reason of Afghanistan
Death of a Small-Timer: Hal was an old-time Hollywood agent, forever at the desk of his little storefront movie studio on Santa Monica in his neat white shirt and dyed hair and that famous parrot by his side. He would do bondage but drew the line at porn. “I have a philosophy about that,” he said. “I’ll degrade women up to a point, and no more.” When the cops found his body next to his open safe, everyone had the same question: “What happened to the bird?”
El Gringo Loco: Before he started selling drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel, he was an athletic kid from a prosperous American family. He went to college on a football scholarship, found work as a high school football coach. Now he’s living at his mother’s house in Oregon, working a straight job, bored to death, trying to sort out his feelings. Should he go straight? Should he go back to the cartel? You get burned if you stand by the fire, he says, but who wants to be cold?
Not Guilty by Reason of Afghanistan: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, on rare nights he fell asleep, Nathan Powell dreamed of poisonous frogs and people on fire. He stopped taking cabs because he thought the drivers might be terrorists. Then he began producing a film about Afghanistan. And then, not long after, the Afghanistan-born director of the film, Jawed Wassel, was found in a shallow grave, chopped into little pieces.
The Grifters 1 and 2: He said he had the largest penis in the world and that Jackie O paid $100,000 just to sleep with him. He said he set up a narcotics-smuggling operation so brilliant the Mafia gave him a $20 million cut. For $500,000, he had sex with fifty women in less than ten hours, his climaxes monitored by a “scholarly professor of gynecology.” Or so he told all the late-night TV hosts who clamored to have him on their shows. Soon enough, he ended up back in prison on his fourth conviction for fraud. That should have been the end of the story, but his next stop was Hollywood, a place where, as one director who worked with him said, “You know better, but you just go for the fried ice cream.”
The Gun King: David Lewisbey was a high school football star from the suburbs of Chicago, who graduated with straight As and a scholarship to the University of Houston. When he came home for Christmas break, he was arrested for smuggling hundreds of guns across the state border in a rented van and selling them on Facebook to members of the Gangster Disciples street gang. The judge who sentenced him to the longest term possible under the law—seventeen years, just three years short of the average sentence for first-degree murder—said he deserved it because he put guns “into the hands of gangbangers.”
The Latin Kings: After Latin Kings leader King Blood was convicted of ordering twelve murders and seventeen attempted murders, his successor, King Tone, took over and declared peace. The Latin Kings were going straight, he declared. The club would incorporate, get wives and kids involved, make alliances with local politicians. But then King Giz was stabbed. That’s when the mayhem really got started.
The Wasp Woman Stung: Maybe she was just too short at only five feet, but Susan Cabot was being groomed as a starlet by Universal Pictures, even did a film with Humphrey Bogart. But when the big parts didn’t come, she drifted into a B-movie world, then into a B-movie afterlife that eerily resembled her most famous movie—a recipe for madness and for a very B-movie death.