On the afternoon of July 17, 2005, the last day of his brief life, 17-year-old Bijan Nassirdaftari drove home from his summer job at Manhattan Bagel on Rockville Pike and went upstairs in his Rockville home to pack the overnight bag he planned to take to freshman orientation at the University of Maryland the next morning. He was 6-foot-2, with close-cropped black hair, long eyelashes, and a wide, melting smile. In summer, he favored polo shirts and madras plaid Bermuda shorts—clothes that often denote private schools and a comfortable upbringing. Six weeks earlier, he’d graduated from Gonzaga College High School, the prestigious all-boys Jesuit high school in the District—a source of considerable pride and financial sacrifice for his parents, Maria Solaun and Saied Nassirdaftari.
Sacrifice wasn’t new to Maria and Saied. As a child in the early 1960s, Maria had fled Cuba with her parents, bringing nothing but their clothes and a map of where the family heirlooms were buried. Saied had been sent by his family from his native Tehran to study first in Switzerland and then in the U.S.; in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the subsequent war with Iraq, his parents implored him not to return. He met Maria in the library at American University. “Her eyes were unbelievably beautiful—I thought she was Iranian, he says. Maria, meanwhile, supposed that dark, handsome Saied was a Spaniard. They fell in love, their parallel histories a strong bond between them.
They married and bought a brick Colonial on Plantation Lane in Rockville. Saied became a software engineer and Maria, who’d begun a career in international trade, switched to freelance Spanish teaching in order to devote more time to their three children: Bijan, Alina and Laila. She ensured that they had Catholic educations (Saied, a secular Muslim, had agreed), spoke proper Spanish, and that the family sat down to home-cooked meals every night. “She’s not one of those moms who throws hot dogs in the oven, but this mother prepares quality food every night,” Bijan enthused in a Mother’s Day card in May 2003.
They were a family that readily expressed emotion and affection. “You’re such a strong woman and I’m so proud to be your son,” Bijan wrote, in a Mother’s Day letter, in 2005. “You have given so, so, so much for me. I really want you to understand how much you mean to me.”
The boy in the red, white and blue Bermudas
In spring of 2005, as Bijan was getting ready to graduate from Gonzaga, Laila and Alina, then 12 and 15, teased their brother that they were going to paint his bedroom pink and turn it into a “girls’ lounge” the minute he left for college.
Today, more than a year after he was murdered, his room is as he left it: the sea-blue walls, the neatly stacked boxes of treasured basketball shoes, the zipped overnight bag on the bed, still containing the clothes for his college orientation. A self-portrait painted in an art class at Gonzaga bears more than a passing resemblance to the studio photograph on the table downstairs in the foyer, where a beaming Bijan towers over his pretty, dark-haired sisters. All three are barefoot and dressed in casual summer outfits. Bijan wears a white polo shirt and a pair of red, white and blue plaid Bermudas.
They’re the clothes he was wearing when he died, Maria says.
The man who discovered Bijan’s body on the sidewalk on Alta Vista Road in Bethesda described the Bermuda shorts in his frantic 911 call. The crime scene investigator noted the turned-out pockets—DNA evidence collected from their cotton lining led detectives to Edward Ricardo Thomas, the 21-year-old man who shot Bijan with a 44-caliber revolver. And 19-year-old Ardele Monkkonen, who was originally charged with first-degree murder but turned state’s witness and pled guilty instead to armed robbery and accessory to murder after the fact, repeatedly referred to Bijan from the witness stand in a tearful voice as “the boy in the plaid shorts.”
Bijan’s girlfriend, Aubrie St. Clair of Rockville, who’d just graduated from St. John’s College High School in Washington, was waiting for him that afternoon at the house on Plantation Lane. Since meeting Bijan at a party six months earlier, blonde, green-eyed Aubrie had become a fixture in the Nassirdaftari household—watching “The O.C.” with Laila and Alina as Bijan groaned and pretended not to watch; walking the dog, Morgan; helping with the dishes. Maria had stopped fixing company meals when Aubrie stayed for dinner.