Credit: Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

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Osama El-Atari leaned up against a wall in his jail cell and tried to flatter a murderer.

“You have balls of steel,” he whispered into the next cell over. “Seriously, big-ass fucking balls. They should put your balls on display at the Smithsonian.”

“If they only knew,” Jorge Torrez replied back through the air vents. “Put my brain up there.”

By the time Osama arrived in Arlington County’s jail in 2010, his once-glamorous life had become anything but. Just a year before, he was the toast of Loudoun County, Virginia—a 30-year-old entrepreneur with a fleet of luxury cars, a house worth nearly $5 million, and a string of suburban restaurants. Osama’s ostentatious displays of wealth had even earned him some notoriety outside the county, thanks to frequent mentions on WJFK’s Sports Junkies radio show.

But the restaurant business couldn’t pay for everything Osama wanted, so he resorted to loan fraud, ultimately pulling off one of the largest bank schemes in Virginia history. That’s how the disgraced millionaire found himself chatting with Torrez, while pressing a recorder provided by police to the vents the whole time.

Despite his new circumstances, Osama became a jailhouse snitch the same way he did everything else: with flair. He flattered Torrez, declaring that the hypothetical movie about Torrez’s life would be called The Perfect Criminal.

If Torrez beat his current charges—attacking two women and raping one of them—Osama promised to buy him dinner. But then he thought better of it. 

“I’m staying the fuck away from you,” he said. “I’ll send you a check for dinner.”

“Make it a big check,” Torrez replied. “So I can buy a hooker at least.” 

Torrez was a rapist and a murderer, and he didn’t mind showing off his trade. He explained to Osama how watching episodes of America’s Most Wanted and Bones taught him how to commit a crime and get away with it. 

Torrez spoke about other crimes, too—crimes for which he’d never been charged. There were the 2005 murders of two young girls in Zion, Illinois, for which one of their fathers had been convicted. Torrez bragged about his role in the unsolved 2009 murder of Navy petty officer Amanda Jean Snell, strangled to death with her own laptop cord. He revealed how he murdered Snell, then stuffed her body into a locker.

“Bro, you’re fucking psychotic,” Osama said. 

“Am I psychotic or am I smart?” Torrez said. 

“Well, you’re smart because you got away with it,” Osama said.

Torrez wouldn’t get away with it for much longer. The recordings earned Torrez a spot on federal death row for Snell’s murder and helped Osama get early release after he served just four years of his 12-year prison sentence. 

The self-proclaimed “King of Ashburn” came back to Loudoun County in 2014 at least partially redeemed. Yes, he was a con man, but he had also helped nail a murderer. 

In February of this year, someone shot him in the head.

***

By the time the Prince George’s County Fire Department found Osama’s body, he had been dead for three days. 

He was found at 9005 Armstrong Lane, on an isolated road in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. A few blocks from Maryland Route 4, the houses on the street are boarded up, or closed off entirely by construction fencing. Whoever killed Osama could have guessed correctly that no one would find him for a while. The rest of the untended yard was filled with busted tires and abandoned furniture.

Osama’s body sat in the front seat of his new-model Chevy truck, partially hidden from the road by a derelict house. His family had reported him missing two days earlier, on Feb. 11, with his last known location a 10-minute drive from Upper Marlboro in Capitol Heights, Maryland.

Inspecting the body, police found what a detective would later describe as two “defects”—procedural speak for bullet holes in his head. More interesting, though, was what they didn’t find: Osama’s prized Rolex watch. The El-Atari family felt sure that Osama, who had been running a construction materials business after his release from prison, would have had the watch on him.

What might have been a lonely suicide for a disgraced ex-con now looked a lot more like a murder—and the missing watch was a clue to a criminal scheme that police say stretched all the way to the United Arab Emirates.

News of Osama’s death spread quickly among those for whom he had been an area celebrity—or a villain. On Fairfax Underground, a smutty 4Chan-style site devoted to Northern Virginia gossip, commenters discussed Osama’s murder under the years-old forum thread devoted to him. The title: “Osama El-Atari is a fucking scumbag.” 

Meanwhile, Sports Junkies fans bombarded the show’s social media pages with news about Osama’s death. Osama’s brother Belal El-Atari called in to defend him, but one of the hosts had a less sympathetic reaction: “Snitches get stitches.”

***

Years before Osama landed in prison or met the people who police say killed him, he had another problem: someone else was calling himself the “King of Ashburn.”

Osama El-Atari Credit: Loudoun County Sheriffs Offices Office

Osama had befriended Jason “Lurch” Bishop, a fellow Ashburn resident and one of four co-hosts of WJFK’s Sports Junkies talk radio show. Bishop, the self-proclaimed king of Ashburn, often made on-air references to his perk-filled life in the exurb—albeit one that mostly stood out for comped meals at Bonefish Grill and his access to Osama’s sports cars. Disputing Bishop, Osama bought ads on WJFK to make the case that he was the true king of Ashburn. 

Even if he wasn’t the undisputed king of Ashburn, though, Osama, with his goatee, broad face, and easy smile, was definitely a success story. The son of Jordanian immigrants, he had risen from his family’s middle-class roots to remarkable wealth. 

Officially, Osama’s fortune came from several restaurants, as well as a job at his family’s Buffalo Wing Factory locations. But even a string of restaurants couldn’t really explain how Osama got all his money. A 2008 Washington Post article about luxury car dealerships weathering the recession cited Osama, who bragged about his two Lamborghinis, two Ferraris, and a Rolls-Royce Phantom, as a top spender. 

“I have no other bad habits,” he told the Post

Osama paid $4.5 million for a 7,590-square-foot mansion with seven bathrooms and a winding brick driveway for all of his cars. When Washington football team player Sean Taylor was murdered, Osama bought his jersey at a charity auction for $25,000. 

Osama spent lavishly on other people, too. Before his sentencing in 2010, friends remembered his generosity: buying baby clothes for a young family, new eyeglasses for an elderly man, and sponsorships for local sports teams. In letters to a judge asking for leniency after he was caught, employees described him as a generous, easy-going boss.  

“Most of his money went to help other people,” Osama’s brother Amjad El-Atari wrote in a 2010 letter. 

Still, he conceded, Osama “spent too much on his cars.”

Even as an ostensibly upstanding businessman, though, Osama was never far from legal trouble. His passion for sports cars brought him a load of tickets and at least one traffic-related stint in jail. In 2007, a security chief for the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency who wanted to do business with Osama scored bogus police badges for him and brother Belal. 

The scheme blew up when Osama submitted his badge to Virginia alcohol regulators in an attempt to win another liquor license. Osama eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. 

Osama emerged from that brush with the law with just a fine. His restaurant business and high-flying lifestyle remained intact—for the time being. 

Still, it was all built on a $71 million lie.

***

In December 2007, Osama headed to a Tysons Corner Starbucks to meet with another bank official. But United Bank Assistant Vice President Sissaye Gezachew wasn’t about to be tricked. He had Osama figured out.

In order to take out millions of dollars’ worth of loans, Osama needed to provide banks with collateral. Since he didn’t have enough assets for the loans, though, he just made up collateral in the form of bogus life insurance policies. Many of the banks were convinced. 

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When Osama arrived at the meeting with Gezachew, he found out the bank official didn’t want to report him to authorities. He didn’t even want to deny the $5 million loan Osama had requested. Instead, he allegedly wanted in on the scam. Gezachew told Osama his forged loan documents didn’t add up, and offered to change the loan documents himself to make them more believable.

Gezachew, using the flashy accountant alias “Gordon Leipzieg,” doctored the loan documents so they would fool his bank. In exchange, Osama told investigators he gave $150,000 to his accomplice in $5,000 and $10,000 installments. 

The partnership worked well enough that United Bank loaned Osama a total of $17 million. The bank thought the money was meant to buy more restaurants, but Osama soon spent it on cars and his house. 

Even with Gezachew’s help, Osama couldn’t fool every bank. At least two banks suspected something and either rejected his applications or demanded accelerated repayments. Soon Osama was using new loans to pay off old ones, pushing off a bank that was getting anxious about its payments by hooking another. 

By the spring of 2009, Osama had scammed more than $70 million from seven different banks to fund what would later be described in court as an “utterly irresponsible lifestyle.” 

 It wasn’t a particularly elaborate bank fraud scheme, says former prosecutor John Sammon, who helped investigate Osama’s case. But the reasons why Osama, already wealthy from his restaurants, felt the need to steal millions aren’t so simple.

In a letter to a judge on his brother’s behalf, Belal speculated that their family’s upbringing motivated his brother’s crime. He remembered wealthier friends treating his father dismissively, and endless discussions with Osama about what they would do if they won the lottery.

“I think it’s in his aggressive nature,” Belal wrote.

Osama’s friend Daniel Tufts had another, simpler theory: Osama just loved being rich. “He enjoyed the status,” Tufts wrote. 

Whatever the motivation behind the scheme, Osama’s luck ran out on May 6, 2009. United Bank started to get nervous about its loan. Osama told them he was out of state getting money to pay them back. A week later, the bank realized the life insurance documents were fake. 

Osama promised the bank that it was all a misunderstanding. Instead of showing up to a meeting with bank officials, though, he vanished. When authorities arrived at his house in Ashburn, they found the cars and a whopping 18 big-screen TVs—but no Osama. 

It’s hard to know where Osama went in his eight months on the run. Days after he left Virginia, United Bank speculated that he had fled to London. Others, knowing his family’s background in Jordan, assumed he was somewhere in the Middle East. 

In June 2009, federal prosecutors charged Osama in absentia with bank fraud. Then, months after Osama fled, investigators in Brazil found a death certificate for Osama and his passport in a Rio de Janeiro restaurant. According to an Associated Press report, Osama had paid a Brazilian official to fake his death. 

The feds didn’t catch Osama in Brazil. Instead, investigators found him in Texas in January 2010. 

He was at a Ferrari dealership.

Credit: Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

***

“I want to read your fucking book, motherfucker,” Osama told Jorge Torrez. “If I publish it, can I get some money?” 

This wasn’t Osama’s first sting. After the government caught Osama in Texas, he became an enthusiastic informant. He helped investigators prosecute United Bank’s Gezachew for his role in the schemes, earning sentencing credit when Gezachew landed 30 months in prison. Then, Osama claimed that he had once been released from jail early on a traffic charge, thanks to $35,000 in political contributions he made to Loudoun County’s sheriff. An FBI investigation ended without charges.

Osama’s fellow inmates in jail weren’t safe, either. In an Alexandria lock-up, Osama informed on an inmate he claimed had been helping smuggle in terrorists from Somali extremist group al-Shabab. The inmate was never charged with helping terrorists.

Even with all his cooperation, Osama still faced more than a decade in prison after pleading guilty two bank fraud charges. So maybe it’s no surprise that he jumped at the chance in 2010 to be in a cell next to Torrez, who had been arrested on rape charges in Arlington. 

The two inmates had already brawled once in jail. Still, investigators believed Osama could start a friendship with Torrez—even though, as Osama would later tell a judge, he considered Torrez “an evil monster.” 

The police officers who recruited Osama to make the recordings were right. The recordings helped secure a death sentence against Torrez for Snell’s murder, while the father of one of the girls Torrez allegedly murdered in Illinois was exonerated. Torrez now faces trial on murder charges in Illinois. 

On the strength of his cooperation, Osama was released in 2014 after serving less than half of his sentence. 

Only a few million dollars of the missing money has ever been recovered. But while the federal government was finished with Osama, not everyone waiting for him outside was. 

***

A day after police found Osama’s body, Prince George’s County Police Department detectives interviewed the last people known to have seen Osama alive. 

Donald Clay, a 48-year-old Manassas resident with an unclear relationship to Osama, at first denied knowing what happened to him—but then, according to police documents, spilled it all. 

According to police, Clay was convinced that Osama had stashed millions of his stolen money overseas. Clay allegedly opened his own foreign bank account in Dubai, with the intention of making Osama transfer the money on a computer at gunpoint, police say. It’s not clear how or why Clay believed that Osama had money abroad. 

On Feb. 10, police say, Clay lured Osama to an afternoon meeting in a Capitol Heights cul-de-sac. An isolated street in an industrial area, the cul-de-sac is empty except for lots for construction vehicles and a sign: “Gorgeous Prince George’s.” 

At the meeting, Clay apparently told police, two accomplices approached Osama with a gun. According to police documents, Clay said that the men—allegedly 26-year-old Lusby, Maryland, resident Taqwa Muhammad and 29-year-old Temple Hills, Maryland, resident Eric Garris—drove Osama in his truck to the abandoned house while Clay followed. 

When the time came to transfer the money to the Dubai bank account, though, police believe that Osama insisted he didn’t have the money. Clay said that’s when one of the accomplices—he claims he’s not sure which one—shot Osama inside the truck, leaving with just $100 and Osama’s Rolex, according to court documents.

After police arrested Muhammad and Garris on Feb. 18, police say that Muhammad called his sister and told her to hide the watch. Muhammad’s cousin later dug up the watch for police, finding it hidden in a Ziploc bag under leaves, according to police.

Credit: Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

Police documents name one other man involved in the murder who hasn’t been charged. A source familiar with the investigation confirms that at least one person believed to have been involved in the murder has yet to be charged. Clay, Garris, and Muhammad all face murder charges.  

Osama’s death also makes it difficult for prosecutors to use his jailhouse recordings of Torrez in the Illinois murder case, admittedly an academic problem since Torrez is already on death row and serving five life sentences. Last week, Torrez’s lawyer filed a motion calling for the recordings to be thrown out on the grounds that he can’t cross-examine Osama.

“I’ve never had a seance in court,” Torrez’sattorney Jed Stone says.

Clay’s alleged plan had one big problem: It’s not clear that his victim had any money stashed abroad. Kevin McCarthy, who handled Osama’s bankruptcy, doubts that much of the stolen money made it out of the country with Osama when he went on the run. 

If the prosecution’s story is true, Osama was killed for money he likely didn’t even have—the final consequence of his bank fraud.

“He did pay a price,” McCarthy says. 

Belal El-Atari, who declined City Paper’s requests to comment, offered a different take on his brother’s death when he called into the Sports Junkies. 

 “At this point he’s dead,” Belal said. “So all the trash talk can stop.”