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American Girls: The Story of Amina and Sarah Said

Yaser Said was accused of killing his two daughters.
Yaser Said was accused of killing his two daughters. Dallas Observer archive

On New Year's Day, Patricia Said stood at the door of a small house in a Hispanic neighborhood of Lewisville, pleading with her daughter Amina to come home. The girl cried and clung to her boyfriend, Eddie, a college student who lived in the house with his mother and sister.

For a week, Amina, an 18-year-old senior at Lewisville High School, had been living a nightmare. Her father, Yaser Said, had pulled a gun on Christmas Eve and threatened to kill her because of her relationship with Eddie.

"We were going to get engaged and get married," says Eddie, who asked not to be identified by his last name. He loved the beautiful young woman with black hair, green eyes and a burning ambition to do something with her life.

After learning that Amina planned to run away with Eddie, Patricia, who everyone called "Tissie," phoned a family member to find a place to hide. Tissie would leave with Amina and her younger daughter Sarah, 17, who also feared her father. Her brother Islam had told their father that Sarah also had a boyfriend, and Yaser threatened to kill her too.

From the time they were little, Yaser told his daughters they were to have no American boyfriends, ever. Yaser and Islam kept strict watch over the girls to ensure they didn't disobey the command.

Yaser had big plans for both girls. Everything would begin in May, when Amina received her high school diploma. She would get engaged to a man he had chosen for her in Egypt, his birthplace. From the groom, Amina would receive a sizable mahr, the traditional dowry. Yaser had scrimped for years to provide his own contribution to the marriage: a small vacation "chalet" on the seaside in the Sinai.

When Amina, who dreamed of becoming a doctor, asked her father when she would go to college, Yaser had a simple answer: when—if—your husband allows. The same was expected for Sarah.

Amina had no intention of marrying a much older Egyptian man, a stranger, so, on December 26, Tissie, her daughters and their boyfriends fled. They made their way to Attica, a small Kansas town where Tissie's aunt lived. But Amina, who had been offered a scholarship by Texas A&M, knew immediately that Attica wouldn't do. She had to live in a college town.

The group got back on the road and headed to Tulsa, where Eddie had relatives. They planned to get an apartment, find jobs and enroll in school. Their boyfriends would stay with them. "We were going to live with them so they could be safe," says Eric, Sarah's boyfriend.

The group found an apartment; Tissie and Eric got jobs right away while the girls checked out schools. Eddie drove back to Dallas for a DJ job and to get his belongings.

Then Tissie lied.

She told her daughters that December 31 was her deceased mother's birthday and she wanted to drive to East Texas to put flowers on her grave. Driving through Denton to Lewisville, Tissie revealed the truth: She was returning to Yaser.

Reluctantly, Sarah went home with her mother, but Amina refused.

"I'm never going back there," Amina told an aunt. She spent New Year's Eve at Eddie's house.

The calls from her mother started early the next morning, but Amina refused to come home. Finally, Tissie drove the few blocks to Eddie's house and pounded on the door. Amina argued while her mother stood unmoving in the doorway, saying her father had forgiven her.

"She said he just wanted to talk to Amina and that everything was going to be OK," Eddie says. "Amina was crying and didn't want to go, but her mom made her. I trusted her mom to take care of her." So, he backed off.

A few hours later, the bullet-riddled bodies of Amina and Sarah Said were found in a bloody taxi outside an Irving hotel. Yaser Said has disappeared and now is a fugitive, wanted for their murders.

Two funerals were held for the girls. At the Christian ceremony, one of Tissie's aunts walked up to an imam who would officiate at the Muslim service. "This is an honor killing," she yelled in his face. "Don't deny it." The rest of Tissie's family took up the refrain, saying Yaser had killed Amina and Sarah because it was his kinship and religious duty to restore the Said family's reputation, besmirched by the girls' relationships with the two young men.

The Said side, the Egyptians, disagreed. Yaser had just snapped—if indeed he was responsible.

"Only a monster could do that," says one of Yaser's brothers. He points out that when Christian parents kill their children, people rarely blame the killers' religious beliefs.

The Koran condemns the slaying of the innocent, says Imam Zia-ul-Haq Shaikh of the Islamic Center of Irving. Honor killings are committed in many places of the world, by Hindus, Sikhs and Christians as well as Muslims.

Still, news that a Muslim father had been accused of murdering two beautiful daughters because he disapproved of their boyfriends triggered an instantaneous and predictable reaction from non-Muslims: It had to be an "Islamic" honor killing.

The truth is more complex.

"Honor killings have nothing to do with Islam," says female Saudi writer and activist Wajeha Al-Huwaidar. "It's only tradition. It's the mentality of women as property."

In the case of Amina and Sarah Said, the murders were allegedly committed by a non-religious Muslim raised in Egypt. Yaser Said exerted dictatorial control over his American wife and children since marrying Tissie when she was 15. Culture and religion certainly played a role in his rage, but Said's desire to dominate his family and his twisted notion of success played an equal part.

Yaser Said struggled financially, still driving a taxi 20 years after immigrating to America, while his three immigrant brothers thrived. As his marriage fell apart, Yaser believed Tissie was conspiring against him, interfering with his business, stealing his money and poisoning his food, according to one of his brothers and an employer. Paranoia made Yaser believe people were following him, watching him.

Yaser's culture taught that a father's duty, his highest responsibility, was to see his children wed into good households. Bonds with well-to-do Egyptian families would secure his good name, his future financial success and care in his old age. Now his daughters—sheltered and modest but thoroughly American—were turning their backs on their father's plans.

Yaser couldn't see that his own marriage to a teenage American girl when he was 30 had all the elements of disaster from the outset. Religion, culture and age differences created a gulf the family could not cross.

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On February 7, 1987, the bride, on her father's arm, made her grand entrance in a second-hand wedding gown and walked down the aisle of a Bedford country Baptist church founded by her Bible-thumping grandfather.

Sitting on one side, the family of Tissie Owens, age 15: white, Christian for the most part, working-class Texans who looked at the groom's relatives and saw immigrants from Egypt who spoke with funny accents, had a funny religion and whose women dressed in flowing robes.

Sitting across aisle: Yaser's brothers and a sister, who had come to the United States in 1983 after their father in Egypt had divorced their mother, remarried and started another family.

Tissie and Yaser had met at a convenience store in Hurst where he manned a cash register. "He was real nice, but you couldn't understand a lot of what he was saying," says Connie Moggio, Tissie's sister. "He didn't speak very good English."

Yaser had no secondary education and few skills. Tissie was a vulnerable, overweight teenager. Tissie's mother had also married as a teenager and was only a year or two older than Yaser.

Tissie's cousin Cindy Quevado says Tissie had first been engaged to Yaser's younger brother, but he "broke it off."

Tall, thin and quiet, Yaser "gifted" Tissie with presents and told her family he owned land in Egypt. Though a Muslim, he agreed to a ceremony in a Christian church, and her parents signed papers allowing their minor daughter to marry a man twice her age.

Tissie's aunt Gail Gartrell took Tissie aside and explained that she was marrying into a very different culture. Tissie didn't care.

"I think it was just a way out of what she was living in," Quevado says. "She grew up extremely poor. I think she had a fairy-tale idea of marriage. I know she wasn't in love. It was ignorance and being naïve."

Tissie's sister, aunts and cousins believed Yaser was wedding Tissie to stay in America. His visa was about to expire, and they had known each other only a week. (Yaser later received permanent residency.) After the ceremony, Gartrell says, several Arabic men approached American women in the parking lot and asked if they were interested in marriage.

The wedding reception, held in a Said home in Euless, emphasized the divide. The men sat in one room, the women in another. All the food was in the room with the men. The female guests were ignored, Gartrell says.

By the time she was 18, Tissie had three children under age 5. To supplement Yaser's meager income as a cabbie, Tissie worked minimum-wage jobs. Moggio says Tissie stopped wearing makeup, wouldn't eat pork and fasted on Muslim holidays. Though she rarely wore a head scarf, Tissie told her sister she had to have Yaser's permission to talk to or go out with friends.

According to Moggio and other American relatives, the couple's son, Islam, grew into a little hellion, calling his mother by her first name and ignoring Tissie's attempts at discipline. "He'd cuss you out," says Moggio. In their household, the pecking order was Yaser, Islam, Tissie and then the girls.

Tissie gradually stopped seeing her family, Moggio says.

"I went over to see the kids," Moggio says. "I was leaving, and he blocked me in. [Yaser] told me, 'I can hurt you right now, and nobody would ever know it,' and don't ever go to his house and get his family."

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The girls, dark-haired angels with downcast eyes, ate tacos and dangled their legs in late fall 1998 while sitting at Gartrell's breakfast table. Tissie had left the girls with Gartrell while she and Moggio went to the Hill County Sheriff's Department to file a report that Yaser had sexually abused both daughters.

"Do you know what Daddy did to me and Sarah?" Amina, then 9, asked her great-aunt.

"Aunt Gail, it was bad," said Sarah, 8. Big brother Islam, 10, clenched his fists in anger and told Gartrell he "wanted to kill Yaser" for hurting his sisters.

Tissie had left Yaser a year earlier, in October 1997; she told her sister that Yaser rarely drove his taxi. "Yaser wouldn't work," Moggio says. "It was hard for my sister with no education to make good money."

According to the sheriff's report, Yaser had retaliated by picking the children up at school: "He ran off to Virginia and told her he was going to take the kids to the Middle East where he is from and she would never see them again."

The couple reconciled in March 1998, however, and moved to Covington, a tiny town near Hillsboro, to live on property owned by a family member. Yaser worked in a nearby convenience store while his family lived in a shack.

"They had to poop in a bucket," recalls Tissie's aunt, Joyce Boucher.

On October 24, 1998, Tissie called a Hill County Sheriff's deputy to say her daughters told their American grandmother, who lived in Garland, that their father had been sexually molesting them for two or three years. She had again left Yaser.

"The girls were staying with [the grandmother] and were afraid to go with their father and told [the grandmother] that their father had put his finger in their vagina and rectum and he had put his penis in Amina's vagina one time," the sheriff's report reads.

"Complainant [Tissie] advised that Sarah told her that her father had stuck his finger inside of her and that Amina told her that her father had stuck his finger inside of her, touched her bottom and her top." The last alleged sexual abuse had occurred about two weeks earlier, when Tissie was visiting her mother and the children stayed with Yaser.

At first, Tissie refused to give the deputy her address, afraid that Child Protective Services or Yaser would take her kids. She wouldn't even let the children play outside.

"The complainant was very nervous about anyone questioning her husband, Yaser Said...The complainant advised she would like to file charges against her husband so she could get a court order to keep him and his family away from her kids."

Tissie took the three children to the sheriff's office. Two deputies conducted a taped interview with Amina, who, in very graphic language for a child, described how her father had touched her, made her touch him, and that her father had "put his front part in her front part." Amina said that "she is afraid of her father...afraid he will hit her."

In an interview with Sarah, the 8-year-old told deputies about her father's alleged sexual molestation and said she was afraid of "her dad and his brothers...scared they will take her."

A later physical exam of the girls didn't confirm the abuse, but "a normal genital exam does not rule out sexual abuse," the report said.

On November 5, 1998, while Tissie was still in hiding, Yaser went to the sheriff's department to complain that his wife had written a check on his account. Since the check wasn't a forgery, there was no legitimate complaint. Then a deputy told Yaser about the sexual abuse allegations. Yaser adamantly denied the charge and said he was willing to take a polygraph test. He blamed Tissie for not providing for the children.

Yaser never took the polygraph. In Dallas County, he was charged with felony "retaliation" after Tissie filed a complaint alleging he threatened to kill her and take the children after being indicted on December 17, 1998, for "sexual penetration" of both girls.

But the charges were dropped on January 12, 1999, when Amina and Sarah recanted, saying they had lied about the abuse because they didn't like their school in Covington and wanted to live with their grandmother. (Yaser was not arrested for alleged retaliation until March 22, 2001. That charge was also dismissed after Tissie refused to cooperate with prosecutors and Yaser agreed to take an anger-management course.)

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Glenna Whitley