WARRENSBURG, Mo. (AP) — Ziyad Abid was a Missouri college student aspiring to become a pilot like his father back home in Saudi Arabia when he was accused of paying his roommate to kill a local bar owner. The judge set bond at $2 million, completely out of reach for his family — but not for the Saudi government.
The money came in. Yet two months later, Abid remains jailed because a judge is refusing to let him out. The judge acknowledged he may be violating the Missouri Constitution, which allows suspects to be held without bond only in capital murder cases.
But the judge won’t budge. Or explain why.
Abid’s lawyers, including a former U.S. attorney for Missouri, have asked a state appeals court to release Abid and remove Circuit Judge Michael Wagner from the case, arguing that he’s biased in part by Abid’s nationality. The court has given Wagner until Monday to respond.
Abid was studying aviation at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg when his roommate, Reginald Singletary Jr., was accused of killing popular bar owner Blaine Whitworth in September. Singletary admitted fatally shooting Whitworth in the bar owner’s driveway but claimed Abid paid him to do it, according to court documents.
Prosecutors haven’t disclosed an alleged motive, but defense attorneys said Abid had no personal connection to Whitworth and that Singletary had been fired as the bar’s bouncer.
“There’s no indication whatsoever this case has anything to do with any kind of subversive activity or terrorism,” said defense attorney John Osgood, the former federal prosecutor. “This is a plain, old simple murder of a bar owner done by a bouncer who was fired a week before. My client just happened to be his roommate.”
Both men are charged with first-degree murder, but not capital murder, and armed criminal action. If convicted, they could face up to life in prison.
Johnson County prosecutor Lynn Stoppy declined to comment on case details, but said she agreed with a previous judge’s ruling that Abid should be granted bond. An attorney for Singletary, who remains jailed on $1 million bond, declined comment.
Wagner hasn’t returned messages from The Associated Press.
David Mitchell, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, agreed that Wagner may have “an unconscious bias that might be acting out” about Abid’s nationality. He said the judge likely fears Abid could flee ahead of his Aug. 20 trial, noting that the involvement of the Saudi government, a U.S ally, is especially unusual and has increased that speculation.
“Imagine if this judge grants bail and this person flees. Think of the ramifications,” Mitchell said.
Wagner’s predecessor in the case, Johnson County Circuit Judge Jacqueline Cook, initially denied bond in November because she feared Abid would flee or be deported. She said Abid’s revoked student visa — the result of him being expelled from school — could open the door for the government to deport him ahead of trial.
But two weeks later, she acknowledged Missouri’s constitution required bond and set it at $2 million. That same day, she retired — and handed the case to Wagner.
David A. Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law who specializes in immigration issues, said the judge’s concerns weren’t unfounded.
“There have been instances of this kind in the past where someone who bonded out from a criminal proceeding moved quickly through the deportation proceeding and was deported before local law enforcement knew about it,” Martin said. “I know ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was working on better communication in that kind of setting, but these instances have occurred.”
That’s what frightens the slain bar owner’s mother. Diane Whitworth said she’s afraid Abid would ask to be deported if he’s released from jail.
“We understand nothing we can do will bring our son back,” she told the AP. “It isn’t just about one person. It’s about anyone who comes to the U.S. to avail themselves of our educational system and commits a crime. They have the potential luxury of being deported before anything happens.”
An ICE spokesman declined comment. But one of Abid’s attorneys, Pat Peters, insisted the government rarely deports foreigners in such cases.
Peters also said Abid was expelled because he couldn’t attend classes while in jail. But the university’s associate provost, Corey Bowman, said Abid had violated school policies “not directly related” to his arrest. Bowman said he couldn’t release details, citing privacy laws.
Still, defense attorneys insist Abid isn’t going anywhere, arguing that prosecutors’ case won’t hold up. In a recent court motion, they said Singletary gave investigators several stories — including saying a Kansas City gang put him up to the killing, then agreeing with interrogators that the mafia made him do it — before saying Abid was involved.
“While there is overwhelming evidence that Singletary killed Whitworth, there is no corroborating or physical evidence suggesting Abid was involved: no DNA, no fingerprints, nothing. There is only the statement of confessed murderer Singletary,” the attorneys wrote.
In unsuccessfully trying to lower his bond, Abid’s attorneys argued it would bankrupt his family to post the 10 percent — or $200,000 — that bond companies require before posting bail.
Abid’s father, Saudi Airlines pilot Tariq Abid, eventually persuaded the Saudi government to post the $2 million bond, according to court records.
The younger Abid was equipped with an electronic monitoring device on April 2. His family paid $2,500 for the device and pays $15 per day to have someone monitor it, even though Abid is in jail, his attorneys said.
During a hearing April 5, Wagner told Peters the court would be satisfied if $2 million were deposited in its bank account. The money was wired that day, according to court documents. But a few days later, Wagner reversed himself.
Peters confronted him, according to court transcripts, saying: “I just want to make sure I heard this court just say that despite the law, despite Judge Cook’s order, despite the representations by the prosecutor and defense counsel, you have just said ‘no bond’ in this case.”
“That is correct, counsel,” Wagner said, according to the transcript.
It’s not unusual for the Saudi government to help its citizens who get into trouble in the U.S., but Wagner’s response is far from the norm, said John Leger, an attorney for the Saudi government who handles legal matters for the Saudi consulate overseeing Missouri and 15 other U.S. states.
“I’ve been doing this over 40 years, and I’ve never seen this,” Leger said, estimating that about 47,000 Saudi students are in the U.S.
“It’s not whether (Abid) deserves it or does not, or if he’s guilty or not guilty,” he said. “The rules say he’s entitled to a bond.”