The ex-husband of Taherah Ghassemi, a 54-year-old woman who’s been missing since early April, was arrested Sunday and accused of paying three men to kill her after deputies found her body buried in St. Helena Parish.
Ghassemi was killed in the murder-for-hire plot paid for by Hamid Ghassemi, her ex-husband, who only a few months ago was ordered to pay her more than $1 million as part of a settlement in a decadelong divorce battle, said Casey Rayborn Hicks, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.
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Hamid Ghassemi, who owns two car dealerships on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge, was among the four men arrested Sunday by deputies following an exhaustive investigation into the disappearance of his ex-wife, Hicks said.
Detectives found Taherah Ghassemi’s body Saturday in a “heavily wooded area in St. Helena Parish just north of Pine Grove,” Hicks said.
The arrests come more than a month after Taherah Ghassemi, an employee of a Denham Springs Wal-Mart who emigrated from Iran to the U.S. about a decade ago, disappeared. She was last seen on April 11, although she wasn’t reported missing to authorities until two days later, on the morning of April 13.
She lived with her son, Hamed Ghassemi, in Baton Rouge.
Also arrested Sunday in her killing were Skyler Williams, 17, of Denham Springs, Tyler Lee Ashpaugh, 20, of Denham Springs and Daniel Humberto Richter, 33, of Walker.
Williams, Richter and Ashpaugh were booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on counts of first-degree murder, second-degree kidnapping and arson.
Hamid Ghassemi was booked into Parish Prison on counts of principal to first-degree murder, principal to second-degree kidnapping, solicitation for murder and principal to arson.
When asked about the link between the men, Hicks said investigators believe Ashpaugh may have worked for Hamid Ghassemi.
When detectives learned of the Ghassemis’ divorce, they began to delve into their relationship. They obtained a search warrant for Hamid Ghassemi’s cellphone records, Hicks said.
They found he received a call from Ashpaugh about 12:45 a.m. on the morning after his ex-wife disappeared. Combing through Ashpaugh’s phone records, investigators discovered he had been at Taherah Ghassemi’s house the night she disappeared as well as the sites where her burned car was found and a site in rural St. Helena Parish where they would later find her body had been buried.
Detectives questioned Ashpaugh, who said he went with Williams and Richter to Taherah Ghassemi’s home and abducted her, placing her in the trunk of her vehicle. They drove her out to a “heavily wooded area … just north of Pine Grove,” where she was buried, the Sheriff’s Office said.
At some point, Taherah Ghassemi was shot, though the Sheriff’s Office did not release specific information about the shooting, and Hicks said detectives were still working to determine who pulled the trigger. An autopsy on Taherah Ghassemi will be conducted Monday, she added.
After burying the victim, the three men returned a black Tahoe to Hamid Ghassemi’s business, Import One, then went to Hamid Ghassemi’s home, where he paid them $10,000. He also gave them a tank of gasoline to burn his ex-wife’s car, the Sheriff’s Office said.
The woman’s car, a 2004 Jaguar sedan, was found torched about 2:30 a.m. April 12 on a stretch of Chalma Avenue surrounded by fields. Her son, Hamed Ghassemi, 37, said he reported her missing the following Monday morning after learning she didn’t go to work Sunday as he suspected she had.
Authorities soon realized the torched car belonged to the missing woman.
Taherah Ghassemi moved to the Baton Rouge area in 2005 and soon filed for divorce from the man she married decades earlier in Iran. Hamid Ghassemi had been living in the U.S. for years and had since remarried even though his marriage with his first wife was never severed.
In February, after years of litigation and several appeals, the divorce was settled in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. Taherah Ghassemi would receive more than $1.1 million — at least $200,000 of which she owed to her attorneys — plus one house in Baton Rouge and another in Lafayette, according to court records.
In the years leading up to the settlement, Hamid Ghassemi claimed the marriage was invalid in the U.S. because Taherah Ghassemi was his first cousin and because the U.S. did not have diplomatic relations with Iran. While a Family Court judge ruled in his favor, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal later overturned the lower court decision, validating the marriage.
The state Supreme Court denied on at least two occasions requests made by Hamid Ghassemi’s attorneys for reviews of the 1st Circuit rulings on the case.
The divorce proceedings ended in February with the settlement, although at least one property dispute that didn’t come up until after the settlement still needed to be resolved.
Hamed Ghassemi could not be reached for comment Sunday afternoon.
The Sheriff’s Office has scheduled a news conference for Monday morning, when it is expected to release further information on the case.