Mom stages car explosion to cover up murder of 5-year-old son amid custody battle
03/22/2017 1:47 pm PDT
Paramedics rush to an awful scene. A car engulfed in flames, a mother and her 5-year-old son inside. What first-responders didn't know is the terrible accident was a setup.
Daniel Dana was a bright, curious, soon-to-be first-grader who loved karate and playing his guitar. The only thing that made the little 5-year-old sad was his parents' constant fighting.
"They met in Iran, got married and shortly thereafter he brought her to the United States," said Marybeth Ayres, assistant state's attorney, Montgomery County, Maryland. "I think it was challenging for the marriage."
"They're actually related," said Ayres. "They're first cousins, but not biologically. She was adopted."
Court records show the Iranian immigrants had filed restraining orders against each other. Montgomery County Assistant State's Attorney Steve Chaikin says there were even allegations of abuse. Their bitter divorce was followed by an even nastier custody battle over little Daniel.
Ayres says Narges was jealous over a young nanny Hamid had hired, and was livid when Daniel spent time with them.
"I think the way she saw the child was kind of 'spoils of the custody war,'" said Ayres.
Hamid in turn hired a private investigator to prove Narges was an unfit mother
"He wanted custody, and it was horrible. they were using Daniel as a pawn," said Chaikin.
On June 15, 2015, the day before the final hearing to determine which parent would win primary custody of Daniel, Narges asks to borrow a friend's car and drives to Daniel's school in Gaithersbug, Maryland.
"It was the last day of school and she picked up Daniel," said Ayres. "She took him to a lot of different restaurants and then just started to drive around."
Sometime around 3 a.m., Narges decides to drive Daniel to Ocean City, Maryland, about four hours away, for a spontaneous beach trip. But they never make it.
On a dark, twisting suburban road, Narges loses control of the car, barrels over a concrete median and the car explodes into a fireball.
Montgomery County Paramedic Argie Koepke just happened to be returning from another call and rushed to the scene. Narges was face down on the asphalt writhing in pain.
"Some of her clothes were burnt off and she had some dark-colored skin going on, so she was talking, she was screaming, and I asked her if there was anybody else in the car and she said her son was in the car. But the car was still on fire," said Koepke.
The desperate mom pleads for Koepke to save her only son, but all four of the car's doors are locked.
"The whole inside was covered with smoke, all the windows were dark," said Koepke. "I was able to bust out a window, opened some doors, looked in there, I didn't see anything except some, like a bunch of blankets on the floorboard, and I didn't see a child's car seat or anything in the back seat."
Moments later a Montgomery County fire engine arrives and firemen extinguish the flames. But there's no sign of Daniel.
"I still asked if she had her son in there and she said yes," said Koepke. "I didn't know if she was out of her mind, like you know maybe she thought he was there but he wasn't."
Narges is rushed to a burn trauma center in grave condition. Firefighters then began digging through the still-smoldering car. They find heartbreak.
"The firefighters discovered a body in the back seat, literally covered up by blankets," said Montgomery County Fire Battalion Chief Brent Hopkins.
Daniel Dana is burned beyond recognition. But it's where his little body is found that raises eyebrows.
"It wasn't until we figured out it was wrapped up and pushed down in the back seat, it wasn't in the car seat, that you started going 'This isn't right,'" said Hopkins.
Montgomery County Fire Investigator Joel Shackett and a crash-reconstruction team are called in to determine how the car caught fire -- and more importantly how Daniel died.
Police photos reveal the car's badly charred interior, but oddly there's little damage of any kind to the outside of the car.
"It just didn't seem to be adding up. For something that had that much action, you'd think that it would be a very high-speed collision," said Shackett.
And even stranger, the car's fuel tank was completely intact.
"There were no leaks, there's nothing that was broken during the collision, fuel tank, fuel pump, fuel lines," said Shackett.
"Several people had said that they smelled something that they believed was gasoline," said Shackett.
A 35-year-old mother is burned, her car engulfed in flames and her 5 year old son dead in the back but as investigators would take a closer look at this accident a much different picture was revealed.
When rescuers arrive on the scene they initially believe 5-year-old Daniel Dana is the innocent victim of a fiery car crash.
"It crushes you," said Joel Shackett. "You just can't understand it, but we have a job to do, we have to you know we have to find out what caused this fire."
Daniel's mother, Narges Shafeirad, who was driving the boy to the beach that night, is also severely burned and rushed to a burn unit.
"It was mainly her hands so I thought at the time she was trying to put the fire out," said Argie Koepke.
By all appearances, it's a horrific tragedy -- until an arson dog gets a whiff of something truly terrible.
"The investigator that was actually up on the car said he thought he had an odor of something similar to gasoline," said Shackett.
The odd thing was that odor was not coming from the outside of the car -- it was emanating from the inside.
"It was on Daniel's clothes, it was on the blanket Daniel was wrapped in," said Shackett. "It was on the front seat, it was on the floor in the front seat, it was along the door rails, it was on the floor of the back seat where Daniel was located."
What investigators can't figure out is how the gas got there.
"We found no mechanical problems with the vehicle at all," said Shackett.
"We finally figured out that there was something more than just a car fire after an accident," said Brent Hopkins.
Cops head to the burn center to speak with little Daniel's mom. She's in grave condition, but offers up a strange explanation. She claims she was hauling two gallons of gasoline in the front seat.
"That she was supposed to be going to the beach and she didn't want to run out of fuel," said Shackett.
Narges tells investigators she filled two water jugs with gasoline in case she couldn't find a late-night gas station on their way to the beach, stowed them on the passenger seat, forgot about them, then a short while later, she says, she lit a cigarette and the car erupted.
"She had fumes on her right hand, and that's what ignites first is her right hand, and then some of her body ignites as well, and then she throws herself out of the car," said prosecutor Marybeth Ayres.
The distraught mom's explanation, while bizarre, seems feasible. But it's what Narges doesn't ask investigators that raises real suspicion.
"She never once asked the police about her son," said Ayres. "'Is he dead, how did he die?' And didn't even shed a tear."
Marybeth Ayres isn't buying Narges' story about going to Ocean City.
"I think that that was a made-up story," said Ayres. "Anybody who has any sort of small life experience knows that there's gas stations between here and some place that's at least four hours away."
As detectives continue to sift through the scorched wreckage, they hit on an "aha" moment.
"The gas tank in the car wasn't even full, so when she said she filled up the extra gasoline and the containers just in case there weren't gas stations on the way to Ocean City, we know that's a lie because she didn't even fill up her own gas tank all the way," said Ayres.
Then this: Prosecutor Steve Chaikin says detectives discovered someone tried to torch the car before it erupted into a deadly fireball.
"We can see the attempt on the right-side front door, you can see the charring where somebody took a lighter and actually just tried to light the car on fire," said Chaikin. "That didn't work."
Could it be possible that a loving mom douses her 5-year-old son with gas, lights him on fire, then stands back and watches him burn to death?
"We believe she's now using the gasoline to now sprinkle it on Daniel, and it even reached his underwear," said Chaikin.
Then the most shocking revelation of all.
"The medical examiner told us that he [Daniel] didn't have any soot in his lungs, so that means he wasn't breathing at the time of the fire," said Shackett. "So Daniel was already dead."
Daniel Dana, 5, did not die in a tragic car fire. His death was not an accident -- it was murder.
"The very second we were informed from the chief medical examiner's office that they were going to call it a homicide, everything changes," said Joel Shackett.
The medical examiner said the little boy was dead before the first flame. Toxicology reports show he was poisoned, given a fatal dose of diphenhydramine, a common ingredient found in adult over-the-counter medications.
"What's interesting is diphenhydramine is not a drug that you find in average children's medicine," said Marybeth Ayres. "You really only find it in Benadryl, but that's not medicine that you give to a child to bring down a fever or for a cold or anything like that. It's medicine you would give to a child for allergies, poison ivy, or rash -- none of which he had."
And the amount of the drug found in little Daniel's body is horrifying.
"He had two and a half times in his blood what would kill an adult," said Ayres.
Daniel's mom, Narges Shafeirad, tells detectives the fatal overdose was also an accident, claiming she unknowingly gave her only son too much medicine for his cold, then panicked when he stopped breathing.
"She gave her son Daniel at least a bottle of liquid, maybe more," said Ayres.
An accidental overdose? Not likely, but nobody wants to believe a mother would kill her own 5-year-old son. Then police uncover a text message Narges sent to Daniel's father months earlier. It explains in detail the proper dosage of medicine to give Daniel for a cold.
And the most heartbreaking news out of the Montgomery County Coroner's Office: This sweet little boy actually tried to fight for his life against his own mother.
"He had injuries to his eyelid, to his cheek, to his face, to parts of his face, because physically the medicine was forced down his throat," said Steve Chaikin.
The injuries were fresh. The medical examiner said they showed no signs of healing, which means that they most likely occurred right around the time of his death, says Ayres.
Prosecutor Steve Chaikin says Daniel's brutal murder and cover-up was staged by the one person he trusted to love and protect him.
"She planned it, she executed it and instead of calling 911 she went and poured gasoline on it," said Chaikin.
Detectives believe Daniel most likely suffered for hours while his mother drove around, force-feeding him medicine and waiting for him to die.
"At the exact moment when she needed to be a mother, she made the decision to go get gasoline to burn her son in the car to make it look like an accident," said Chaikin.
Once Daniel was dead, cops believe Narges then stuffed his little lifeless body in the back seat of the car, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.
"This was an attempt to cover up a brutal murder of her own child and make it look like an accident. He burned to death. 'Woe is me.' And to gain pity and sorrow because she was the 'victim' in the case," said Chaikin.
Prosecutors believe Daniel's death was a cruel case of revenge, that Narges was trying to get back at her estranged husband Hamid Dana for divorcing her and trying to take Daniel away.
"Father wanted custody more than anything. Mother stopped that from happening because she killed him. Father will never get custody," said Chaikin.
Court records show Narges sent Hamid a haunting text message just days before Daniel's death: "I will make you cry. You will be sorry."
"They were using Daniel as a pawn, and in this war of divorce, the spoils of the war was murdered," said Chaikin.
Instead of dragging everyone through a trial, the mother in this case actually pleaded guilty. Crime Watch Daily was inside the courtroom on the day of sentencing.
Cameras were banned but what we witnessed was raw and emotional.
Narges Shafeirad begged for mercy, telling the judge she was a broken woman. The prosecution believes it was a desperate act for a lighter sentence.
"I actually looked over at her at one point and she was doodling, drawing pictures in her notebook," said Ayres.
Daniel's father was so heartbroken he tried to speak but couldn't, instead releasing a written statement.
"Daniel didn't pass in an accident. He passed because this woman wanted to get back at me and seek revenge for divorcing her. No human should do this to her own child. No parent should have to bury their child." -- Hamid Dana
Then Maryland Circuit Court Judge Nelson Rupp delivers his sentence: life, suspended with all but 50 years.
"I think justice won today and that is always something great to take home with you," said Marybeth Ayres.
But firefighters want Daniel's father to take something else home with him.
"The fire isn't what killed Daniel, and at some point in time I hope that he's able to at least understand that his son is now in a better place, and at some point they will meet again," said Joel Shackett.
At sentencing, Daniel's father Hamid also told the judge the last words he spoke to his son when he was dropping him off at his mother's house the day of his murder.
He said "please be strong." Daniel responded "Daddy, I'm strong. You be strong."
Hamid Dana is now living up to that word, devoting his life to being an advocate for children who were victimized by domestic abuse.