Finding Paul Yalda: Students Track Down the Last Witness in the Pathfinder


By Grace Johnson
Medill Innocence Project

MESA, Ariz.–Paul Yalda’s father said he had no knowledge of his son’s whereabouts, what he called “other people’s business.” One of Yalda’s brothers said Yalda was in Canada. An ex-girlfriend said Yalda might have been in Boston.

But records showed that Yalda was due to appear in a small Arizona county courthouse on an unspecified misdemeanor charge in mid-February.

So we—four Northwestern University students in an investigative journalism class supported by the Medill Innocence Project—took a leap of faith, flying with our professor from Chicago to Phoenix, Ariz., on the gamble that Yalda might show up at his pre-conference hearing in Mesa, Ariz., on what turned out to be a shoplifting charge. And it was a roll of the dice: Everyone we called in Arizona said he wasn’t anywhere in the state, where records indicated he had once lived. Yalda himself didn’t respond to any emails, letters, phone calls, or Facebook messages.

Medill students had been investigating a murder case for nearly half a year, and it came down to this: We had tracked down all the occupants of a 1995 red Nissan Pathfinder on the night of the crime nearly 15 years ago—all the co-defendants other than Yalda. We had interviewed Ariel Gomez, the only one still serving time for murder. Yalda had been sitting in the backseat of the SUV when Gomez allegedly fired the shot that killed a bystander. Yalda was the only one of the five not to give a written statement to authorities in the hours following the 1997 crime; he had offered an oral statement in which he allegedly told police Gomez fired twice into a crowd.

What, we needed to know, did Yalda know?

Dead ends

We knew through his closest friend at the time of the crime, John Yacoub, that Yalda had moved to Arizona after he was acquitted of Concepcion Diaz’s murder. A database search turned up plenty of Arizona addresses for Yalda, but no phone numbers, so the postal system and social media became the immediate way to reach him.

Phone numbers linked to Yalda’s father, Serjoun Yalda, led to dead ends—disconnected numbers—until one clicked and Serjoun picked up. Serjoun said he had little to no contact with his son. He said he would try to reach Yalda through Yalda’s girlfriend. We heard nothing more.

So we turned to Google. Two simple terms were entered into the search field: “Paul Yalda” and “Maricopa County, Arizona.” One result stood out. A Maricopa County Courts website listed Yalda’s name under recent arraignments.

After several phone calls to the West Mesa Justice Court, we learned Yalda was scheduled to be back in court on Thursday, Feb. 16, for a pre-trial conference.

There was no reason to run his name through the same database we had recently searched; it had yielded little information. But we tried anyway, and it did the trick: The listing showed a new address for Yalda and better yet, something we never had before—a phone number.

We booked plane tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars. The only item left open on our itinerary was an interview with Yalda. We were coming, and he didn’t know it.

Job listing websites turned up new telephone numbers for Serjoun, Yalda’s father, and Yalda’s brother, Peter. When we called Serjoun again, he became frustrated and said he knew nothing of Yalda’s whereabouts. When we reached Peter, he said Yalda was married and living in Canada. So we tried the new number we had for Yalda.

But he didn’t answer—his ex-girlfriend did.

“I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing right now,” said the woman who identified herself as Katie Smyth. She said Yalda might be in Boston. Smyth also said she knew who we were and so did Yalda. She said Yalda knew we were looking for him and didn’t want to talk to us.

Arizona

A sign at the entrance to Paul Yalda's former neighborhood. (Diane Tsai/Medill)

A sign at the entrance to Paul Yalda’s former neighborhood. (Diane Tsai/Medill)

With our Arizona trip looming and still no contact with Yalda, we constructed a reporting plan that would take us through Yalda’s life, if not to the man himself. Records showed that the bank had foreclosed on his Arizona home a few years ago, and it had sold for less than half of his purchase price. Other records told us he had filed for bankruptcy, falling deep in debt with a rash of creditors. Police and court records showed another side, linking Yalda to drugs and problems with the law.

Once we arrived in Arizona, we immediately pulled Yalda’s criminal records from the Maricopa County Clerk’s Office and the Phoenix Municipal Court. We also drove out to Yalda’s foreclosed home to talk to his former neighbors.

The next morning, at about 8 a.m., we turned up at the county courthouse for Yalda’s hearing and waited. And waited. After two and a half hours, it was obvious that Yalda was a no-show.

So we knocked on doors. Yalda’s father’s house: No answer. As we were about to leave, we saw an older woman and a young boy hurrying down the street. The woman looked similar to a photo of Yalda’s mother from a picture found on the Facebook page of one of his relatives. We pulled up the Facebook photo on a cell phone. It was her.

After we approached Mariam Yalda and identified ourselves, she told us who she was and held up her hand, saying she wanted nothing to do with us. She told us she had not talked to Yalda in nearly a year.

That day we gathered snippets of information: Yalda’s former public defender described him as mild-mannered, but didn’t know how to reach him. The dental center where he owed money wouldn’t show us his records without his permission. A Phoenix police officer instantly remembered Yalda by name because of what he described as his erratic behavior during their encounters.

That night we returned to Yalda’s father’s house. Much to our surprise, Mariam came to the door, even though she had told us earlier she didn’t live there. Shouting from behind a locked screened door, Mariam said we should stop harassing her and threatened to call the police.

Courthouse

Paul Yalda agrees to an interview after leaving the West Mesa Justice Court. (Grace Johnson/Medill)

Paul Yalda agrees to an interview after leaving the West Mesa Justice Court. (Grace Johnson/Medill)

The next day, we suspected Yalda was nearby, and might even show up at the courthouse; after all, he had missed his hearing the day before and he would face arrest if he didn’t show up. So we turned up at the courthouse again in the final hours before our flight back to Chicago. A half hour before we were to depart for the airport, a Jeep Grand Cherokee caught our eye. The passenger slouched in the front seat and wore a low-slung baseball hat and sunglasses. As the Jeep swung into a parking spot, the passenger’s profile came into full view. It was Paul Yalda.

And he wasn’t happy. He was enraged. Cigarette waving in his hand, he threatened to spit in our face if he ever saw us again. He went into the courthouse. Moments later, he walked back out and refused to take the note we had quickly jotted for him. His companion, a woman, took the note. Minutes later, as we prepared to leave, Yalda climbed out of the Jeep and walked over to us, calm. Now it was happening. He was going to talk.

The four students—Grace Johnson, Olivia LaVecchia, Rowena Li and Diane Tsai—reported from Arizona under the supervision of Medill Professor Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project.

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