He Confessed to the Murder of His Own Family But Decades Later The Truth Is Exposed
If crime dramas have taught us anything, it’s that our legal system is far from perfect. When authorities start looking for suspects, sometimes none can be found. But someone has to take the fall. The man standing closest to the smoking gun always looks the guiltiest, but did he do it? Some people, unfortunately, are presumed guilty from the get-go, even when the evidence isn’t there. That’s what happened to Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, but then they confessed to the triple homicide of Rafay’s own family. Read on to find out just what could drive someone to confess to a murder they didn’t commit.
1. An Unlikely Duo
Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns were an unlikely duo. They became friends during their high school days in Vancouver, Canada. Atif came from an immigrant Muslim-family from Pakistan, his father Dr. Tariq Rafay was a highly skilled engineer. His mother Sultana Rafay had a doctorate in nutrition and devoted herself to raising their disabled daughter and gifted son.
In 1994, the Rafay family moved across the border to Bellevue, Washington in the Seattle metropolitan area. Atif, on break from his first year at Cornell University, met up with Sebastian at his parents’ West Vancouver home. The two later traveled by bus down to Washington to visit Atif’s family. A trip they would certainly regret.
2. The Night Of…
Atif and Sebastian, both 18 years old, planned for a night of fun out on the town. At around 8:30 in the evening they set off to do a few things in Bellevue then later drove across the lake to Seattle. The date was July 12th, 1994 – a date that neither of them would ever be able to forget.
By that time, the Rafay family had only been living in the city of Bellevue for five days since their move from Canada. This is where their story began; within a matter of hours, their world would be turned upside down.
3. Cold Blooded Murder
Sometime in the early morning hours, Atif and Sebastian returned to the Rafay family home to find Atif’s mother and father dead; his sister was found on the floor of her room critically injured and struggling for life. The scene was horrific, blood speckled the newly painted white walls and pools of blood collected on the carpets.
Sebastian placed a panicked 911 call from the kitchen phone at 2 a.m. In the chilling recording, he can be heard gasping to catch his breath while telling the operator that there had been “some kind of break-in” and that Atif’s family was dead. Not knowing whether the killer was still in the house, the two waited for the police outside.
4. House of Horrors
Dr. Rafay, Atif’s father, was found in his bed face-up wearing pajamas. He was sound asleep when someone bludgeoned him to death, striking him repeatedly in the head and face. His facial features were no longer recognizable and the white bed linens had turned a gruesome crimson color. First responders initially thought he had been shot in the face with a shotgun.
The mother, Sultana Rafay was found in the basement, face down on the floor. It appeared as if she had been unpacking boxes when she was attacked. She too had died of blunt force trauma to the head. A blood-soak headscarf had been laid over her head.
Atif’s 20-year-old sister, Basma, was still laying on the floor moaning when police arrived. She was born with autism and stopped speaking early on in childhood. Sultana had dedicated her life to taking care of Basma, trying to give her the life she deserved and helping her with the basic tasks she couldn’t do herself.
Basma was still in her bedroom, bleeding from multiple head injuries and gasping for breath. The wall above her bed was crushed in at multiple locations, most likely from errant blows meant for Basma. The 20-year-old tragically died five hours later in a local hospital.
The Bellevue police immediately questioned and checked out Sebastian and Atif upon arrival. The two cooperated fully, submitting their clothes for testing. Using a special chemical, authorities found that the downstairs bathroom was covered in traces of blood. The murderer had taken a shower before leaving the house. Considering the method of murder, the assailant would have been covered in blood. Later analysis would show that the murder weapon was a baseball bat.
Neither Sebastian nor Atif tested positive for any trace amounts of blood on their body or clothes. The Bellevue police, however, had their eye on the two teenagers from the start. Something about their behavior and responses attracted the suspicious gaze of the detectives, but this was just the start. If the police think you did it, is there anything you can do to prove otherwise?
7. The Solid Alibi
The police, already suspicious of the two teenagers, questioned the two relentlessly. They wanted to know where exactly they had been during the time of the murders. They explained, in detail, that they had gone to a restaurant in Bellevue’s Factoria neighborhood. After that, they went to the movies across the street and saw The Lion King.
Then the duo drove across the lake to a Seattle nightclub. They were turned away at the door because the club was about to close, so they headed back home. Initially, police believed their alibi to be “air-tight,” but Sebastian and Atif would soon learn that reasonable doubt can be created even when no physical evidence exists.
8. Immediate Reactions
According to official police records, both Sebastian and Atif were visibly shaken and grieving for the loss of Atif’s family the night of the murder. Both cooperated with authorities and did not request legal counsel. Atif even gave them the password to his computer and permission to check it for evidence.
But that didn’t quell the initial suspicions that somehow, in some way, the two boys were in on the murder. The police found it odd that Atif had noticed his Walkman and a VCR were missing from the house. Later, authorities would say that he acted very nonchalant about the murder of his entire family and that Sebastian had acted “put off” about talking to the police.
9. The Hotel
After endless hours of police questioning, Bellevue authorities realized that Sebastian and Atif were exhausted beyond belief and wouldn’t be of any use in such a condition. The two were sequestered in a Bellevue Motel and questioned for three straight days at the police’s discretion.
After three days of being in the motel, the two returned to Vancouver to stay with Sebastian’s family. The Canadian consulate in Seattle, in cooperation with the Bellevue police, allowed them to leave. As only people of interest in the case, they were free to go. But that’s not the story the police told the media…
10. And Then There Were None
The police conveniently “leaked” to the media that the two had fled to Canada and that they considered it very suspicious. They neglected to mention that both Sebastian and Atif were free to leave and that they were not suspects in the murder case. The travel back to Canada was coordinated with the Canadian consulate in Seattle with the approval of the Bellevue Police Department.
The police comments created a media frenzy with newspapers running headlines saying that the two were wanted suspects, fleeing the U.S. to avoid authorities. The media was already painting the two as the certain killers of the Rafay family.
11. Forced Holes
The Bellevue police began trying to find holes in the teenagers’ alibi. When no holes were found, they were created. What the police once considered a rock-solid alibi slowly turned into a “suspicious” one. The waitress at the restaurant remembered the two coming in because of their Canadian IDs, which the waitress checked when they ordered a glass of wine during dinner.
Also, the bouncer at the club remembered Sebastian and Atif because they had been turned away at the door. The police felt that the two did this on purpose to try to create a solid alibi and that they could have easily skipped away and committed the murders during the movie they saw.
12. Puzzle Pieces
With a lack of any forensic evidence linking Sebastian and Atif to the three homicides and no other suspects, they went with their “gut feeling.” And that told them that the two Canadian teens were guilty. They found it odd that in the 911 call Sebastian had stated that there had been a break-in, not a murder.
The scene of the crime was also staged to look like a break-in. Nothing apart from the Walkman and VCR Atif mentioned had been taken from the home. As far as the police were concerned, all the puzzle pieces pointing to Sebastian and Atif as the cold-blooded killers were falling into place.
13. The Funeral
While the two were in Vancouver, Sebastian’s family constantly watched Seattle news channels, listening for any developments in the case. Then one-night, footage of the Rafay family’s funeral was aired live. Atif was never informed that the bodies had been released, much less that they were going to be buried. He was heartbroken and furious.
Atif, of course, had assumed that he would be the first to know about such events and that his family would be buried in Vancouver where the family had roots. The Rafays were Muslim and held beliefs that the immediate family has certain, very serious religious obligations to perform prior to the burial of family members. The fact that Atif wasn’t informed of the funeral was simply unheard of in the Islamic faith.
14. Superiority Complexes
U.S. and Canadian authorities began working together to further investigate Sebastian and Atif. They dug into the teens’ backgrounds to try to find anything that would point to them being the killers. Both of the boys were intellectuals and at the top of their classes.
They found that they both had a love of Nietzsche’s philosophy which they believed pointed to a superiority complex. They had also both participated in a play about a perfect murder. This was exactly what they wanted to find.
15. Criminal Masterminds
News outlets began running stories on how the two Canadians were criminal geniuses and had committed the “perfect murder.” From insurance money that Atif received, the two were able to rent an apartment along with their good friend Jimmy Miyoshi and buy a car.
While many people might see no issue with that, they were painted as flaunting insurance money from the murders and going on a “shopping spree.” Police authorities were certain that the duo had murdered the Rafays for the money. For Sebastian and Atif, life was far from normal. They were social outcasts, hated and feared by the general public and unable to find work.
16. Mr. Big Scheme
Nine months had passed since the horrific murders of the Rafay family and police still had no evidence to charge Sebastian and Atif. They were still merely “people of interest” and there were no other suspects appearing out of the woodwork, at least none that interested the police.
As their frustration grew, so did their desperation. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s FBI equivalent, decided to force a confession out of the two teens with a technique known as “Mr. Big.” A tactic that is illegal in the United States, with good reason.
17. The Dirty Details
“Mr. Big” is an undercover police investigation in which agents pose as crime bosses to lure in suspects and gain their trust. As the bond between the two grows, the fake crime boss attempts to covertly persuade the suspects into admitting to past crimes, then arrests them based on their confession.
The undercover agent wins over the trust of the suspect by showing how powerful he is and how much money he makes in the crime business. The process is slow and only the best interrogators are placed as agents. This technique works best on individuals that are socially isolated and financially disadvantaged, so the RCMP focused their attention on Sebastian Burns.
18. The Target
Sebastian and Atif’s apartment and car were bugged with numerous recording devices and their phones were wiretapped. Their every movement was tracked and every word they spoke was recorded. After weeks, the RCMP finally made their move.
The undercover agent followed Sebastian into a bar. Sitting next to him at the bar, the agent began his mission by striking up a conversation. Sebastian and Atif were the youngest targets of the Mr. Big tactic in Canadian history.
19. Gaining Trust
The undercover agent, along with his partner, lured Sebastian into their fake crime organization. They posed as violent criminals, occasionally bragging about the people they had killed and making sure there were always piles of money laying around that needed to be counted.
The operation went on for five long months. The agents pretended to have underground connections to the police investigation in Bellevue and the ability to “make things go away.” They placed Sebastian and Atif into a position of “knowing too much” and used threats of death and violence against them if they didn’t cooperate.
20. The Lead
At first, the agents casually brought up the subject of the Rafay family murder, asking about what actually happened and why people thought that Sebastian and Atif were killers. One agent point-blank asked Sebastian why they thought he was the murderer.
He responded: “Because they don’t have anyone else. Don’t have any leads, no forensic evidence.” For months his story was the same. Anytime the murders were mentioned, he would state that he and his friend Atif had nothing to do with it.
21. The Big Squeeze
The Mr. Big operation wasn’t providing the results the RCMP had hoped for. Yet again, they were getting frustrated with the lack of progress in the case. So they decided to pull out all the stops to get a confession out of Sebastian and Atif.
The undercover agent presented the teens with a document from the Bellevue police department stating that new DNA evidence was found and both Sebastian and Atif will be brought up on charges of murder. A triple homicide conviction in the United States could easily result in the death penalty, if not life in prison.
22. No Options
The agents graciously offered their assistance to the boys. If they only confessed and told the agents what happened and how they murdered the Rafay family, they could make it go away. Pressured with the very real threat of the death penalty, even for a murder they didn’t commit, they gave in. The confessions were recorded on video and the inconsistencies were numerous.
Sebastian and Atif agreed to whatever the agents suggested had happened and contradicted themselves at every turn. The result was that Atif was sitting in the living room while Sebastian took a bat to every member of the family naked, showered, then went back to finish their movie at the theater.
23. The Missing Piece
The coerced and poorly pieced-together confessions weren’t enough for the RCMP. They believed that the young men’s roommate, Jimmy Miyoshi, also had something to do with the murders. They lured him in to meet with the agents as well.
After numerous back and forth exchanges, a visibly suspicious Jimmy pointed to Sebastian when asked who the killer was, closing the deal. The authorities had gotten what they wanted: confessions that implicated all three men in the murder of the Rafay family, even if they were the result of lies, death threats, and the intimidation of easily manipulated teens.
The very next day, Sebastian Burns, Atif Rafay and Jimmy Miyoshi were arrested by Canadian authorities. Jimmy was threatened with conspiracy to commit murder should he not turn on the other two. In the same way, Sebastian and Atif were pitted against one another.
A terrified Jimmy cracked under pressure, telling the agents whatever they wanted to hear in an effort to save himself. Sebastian and Atif refused to give in to the deals being offered to them for turning on each other. After being released, Jimmy promptly fled to Japan.
25. Ignored Evidence
While the Mr. Big investigation was taking place, and even beforehand, other tips were pouring into the Bellevue police department. Unfortunately for Sebastian and Atif, these were ignored. One FBI informant told the Bellevue police that a Seattle cleric had ordered a hit on Dr. Rafay due to his beliefs in Islam.
The informant provided a long and detailed list of the people who were involved, along with dates, photos, and phone numbers. He even stated that he saw the murder weapon in the trunk of one of their cars. At the time, the murder weapon was not known to the public. The Bellevue police ignored the information and considered the informant crazy.
Dr. Rafay was a devout Sunni Muslim. He was president and co-founder of the Canadian-Pakistani Friendship Organization and advocated for a more moderate form of Islam. Dr. Rafay gave lectures on Islam in the western world.
As an engineer, he developed a computer program which confirmed that Muslims in British Columbia were not directly facing Mecca during prayers, but a few degrees off. Such a statement was highly controversial within the Muslim community and earned him numerous enemies. But in 1994, the thought of murder motivated by religious extremism in Canada or the U.S. was unthinkable.
Sebastian and Atif were placed in a maximum security facility in Vancouver to await trial in 1995. There were two Supreme Court trials held in Canada on whether they would be extradited to the U.S. and possibly face the death penalty.
In 2001, after six years of incarceration, they were both extradited to Washington State for trial. But that trial wouldn’t occur until 2004. In total, Sebastian and Atif waited nine years, much of it in solitary confinement, for their trial. They say one is innocent until proven guilty, but it’s lesser known that the system can easily lock one away for almost a decade while he is still “innocent.”
28. A Major Scandal
Sebastian’s lawyer, Theresa Olson, convinced Jimmy Miyoshi to retract his statements. But just when things started looking up, a new scandal broke. Olson was caught having sex with Sebastian in the county jail.
People close to the trial believe that the affair had been going on for months. Olson had been on the case for over 43 months at that point and was forced to remove herself completely. A new team of lawyers were brought in and the media had a field day with the sex scandal, further demonizing Sebastian.
29. The Physical Evidence
The physical evidence linking Sebastian and Atif to the murders of his parents and sister was virtually nonexistent. Neither of them had traces of the family’s blood on them, which would have been impossible if Sebastian had bludgeoned them to death with a baseball bat like he was coerced to confess.
There was, however, physical evidence that pointed to the actual murder or murderers. Unknown blood and hair samples were found in the garage and Dr. Rafay’s bedroom that matched neither Atif nor Sebastian. The mother was found on the floor facing east with a headscarf placed over her head, indicating a religious connection.
30. Illegal Confessions
The main factor surrounding the trial was the fact that the Mr. Big tactic used to get the confessions out of Sebastian and Atif is illegal in the United States. As such, the defense argued, the confessions should not be admissible in a U.S. court of law.
Without the confessions, there would be no case against the two. The presiding judge decided to allow the confessions to be used in the trial. He stated that the teens were “free to break off their contact with the undercover officers at any time.” This was a devastating blow to the defense.
31. Jury Convinced
The RCMP recorded over 4,000 hours of audio and video during the Mr. Big sting, including the so-called confessions. The recordings were played for the jury and what they heard shocked and horrified them. From that point on, Sebastian and Atif’s guilt seemed certain.
The defense requested to bring in an expert to explain to the jury how such a covert operation can manipulate and coerce someone into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit just to protect themselves from lies. The judge wouldn’t allow it, though.
32. Evidence Thrown Out
The jury was also not allowed to hear evidence regarding the Islamic extremist organization nor the FBI informant who had provided detailed knowledge of the hit that was ordered on Dr. Rafay. All evidence that the Bellevue police neglected to investigate.
In fact, the police never questioned members of the Muslim community about the conflicts and enemies surrounding Dr. Rafay for his beliefs. In a pre-9/11 world, the thought of religious extremists murdering an entire family because of a belief seemed absurd. In 2003, a close friend of Dr. Rafay, Riasat Ali Khan, was murdered outside his Vancouver home. Evidence points to Islamic extremism, but the case remains unsolved.
33. Key Testimony
Jimmy Miyoshi, who by then was living in Tokyo under an alias, was the final nail in the coffin. The prosecution discovered that he was working for an American company and pressured them to get him to testify. His employer threatened to fire him if he didn’t cooperate.
Jimmy was granted immunity for saying that Sebastian and Atif were guilty. His statements directly contradicted all physical evidence and each statement he made contradicted the one before it. But the jury ate it up. In their minds, the forced confessions proved the defendants’ guilt and Jimmy’s testimony washed away any doubts they might have had.
34. The Verdict
In their closing arguments, the defense tried to emphasize the lack of any physical evidence and the actual evidence that was ignored – but the jurors had already made up their minds. Both Sebastian and Atif were found guilty on three counts of murder and sentenced to serve three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
In the judge’s closing statements to Sebastian, he emphasized that he was convicted based on his own “chilling casual confession.” A confession that was forced out of him, based on lies and threats of the death penalty. The jury felt that both Sebastian and Atif, who by the time of the trial had already been imprisoned for nine years, lacked empathy.
35. Freedom at Last?
An appeal was filed in 2011 but it was immediately dismissed. Sebastian’s family worked tirelessly trying to get the two out of prison. His sister even produced a documentary called “Mr. Big” about her brother’s ordeal and her belief in his innocence.
In 2014, Canada placed severe restrictions on the usage of the Mr. Big tactic, recognizing that it could lead to false and coerced confessions. But what did that mean for Sebastian and Atif? Would the new developments help pave their way to freedom?
36. Another Murder
New information about religious extremism has been pouring in post-9/11. Many believe that ignorance was the only reason the police and judge ignored critical evidence. Forensic evidence from the crime scene pointed to the presence of at least three killers and the blood and hair DNA found was never identified.
Since the trial, the FBI has admitted that the religious extremist group who many believe murdered the Rafay family, murdered another Pakistani family in 1984. The father of that family worked for the same engineering firm as Dr. Rafay.
37. Media Influence
Right after the murders took place, the media quickly turned the public against Sebastian and Atif, with the assistance of the Bellevue Police Department. The police provided the media with fictitious and biased propaganda to use against the two teens.
The first example was when the police told news agencies that Sebastian and Atif “fled” to Canada when they were actually free to leave and the trip was coordinated with Canadian and American authorities. It progressed with further accusations and assumptions of their backgrounds. They were accused of being criminal masterminds who had planned the “perfect murder.” When everyone already thinks you’re guilty, how can you possibly be “innocent until proven guilty”?
38. Second Appeal
Lawyers then filed a second appeal. Their argument was that their clients did not receive a fair trial and in the age of scientific analyses, they could prove there was no possibility that Sebastian and Atif murdered Dr. Rafay, Sultana and Basma. The amount of blood evidence from killing someone with a bat would be tremendous. And it wouldn’t be possible to remove the traces by simply showering. Neither of the two had traces of the Rafay’s blood on them.
Additionally, they wouldn’t have been able to the fabricate the additional unknown DNA evidence at the crime scene. Furthermore, analyses indicated that at least three people were responsible for the murders. Police had no other suspects because they ignored actual evidence, leaving only Sebastian and Atif whom they were determined to convict no matter what.
39. Hopeful Or Hopeless?
Despite the mounting evidence of their innocence, Sebastian and Atif remain in prison. Their appeal is still pending. Atif teaches other inmates in prison. Sebastian suffers from mental issues due to his many years spent in solitary confinement.
He has been assaulted by inmates and has refused to eat at times. Today, he is almost unrecognizable from the person he once was. Should he ever get out of prison, he will have long-lasting mental health issues.
40. The Confession Tapes
Netflix released a documentary series called The Confession Tapes which included Sebastian and Atif’s emotional story. The series has brought new awareness and interest around freeing the two falsely convicted men. Multiple innocence projects have dedicated their time and efforts towards helping to get them out of prison.
Sebastian and Atif have been in incarcerated for over two decades based solely on an illegal and coerced confession. They did not receive a fair trial and their lives have been ruined. Some remain skeptical of their innocence, but one thing is certain: the evidence doesn’t prove their guilt.
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