A detective misled a state court commissioner into signing a search warrant last April that led to the seizure of Baton Rouge automobile dealer Hamid Ghassemi’s cellphone records and ultimately to his arrest and indictment in the alleged murder-for-hire of his ex-wife, Ghassemi’s attorneys claim.
It was those phone records, authorities have said, that led them to the 65-year-old Ghassemi and one of his three alleged accomplices, Tyler Lee Ashpaugh, of Denham Springs. All four men are charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of Taherah Ghassemi, 54.
Hamid Ghassemi’s lawyers, Tommy Damico and Brent Stockstill, are asking 19th Judicial District Court Judge Lou Daniel to suppress all evidence received through what they term an “unconstitutionally obtained” search warrant. The judge on Wednesday scheduled a June 22 hearing on the matter.
East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Dana Cummings, the prosecutor on the case, said it would be unethical for her to comment on the matter but that she will file a response into the court record. The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office did not reply to a request for comment.
Taherah Ghassemi, to whom Hamid Ghassemi owed $1 million in a divorce settlement, disappeared in April 2015 and was found May 16 with a gunshot wound to the head and buried in a shallow grave in rural St. Helena Parish.
It was her son, Hamed Ghassemi, who reported her missing.
Damico and Stockstill contend that Cpl. Edward Nicholson Jr., an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s detective, led 19th Judicial District Commissioner Quintillis Lawrence to believe that the cellphone number cited in the search warrant was Hamed Ghassemi’s, when in fact it was the father’s number. The only Ghassemi name included in the warrant is “H.Ghassemi.”
“The warrant does not identify whose cell phone number that is to be searched or that person’s connection to the case,” the lawyers argue. “At the time this warrant was drafted, Cpl. Nicholson knew that this cell phone was Hamid Ghassemi’s phone number. Cpl. Nicholson intentionally failed to identify the owner of (the) cell phone number ... and to inform the Commissioner that two H. Ghassemis existed. The reviewing Commissioner assumed that the H. Ghassemi referred to in the affidavit was the owner of the phone and the son of the alleged victim.”
The search warrant application that Nicholson presented to Lawrence on April 15 indicates “H. Ghassemi” last saw his mother the morning of April 12 at their North Laurel Creek residence, and after not finding her at home that night, reported her missing the following morning.
Hamid Ghassemi’s attorneys claim in their motion to suppress that Nicholson did not inform Lawrence that he had been to the residence before requesting the warrant and determined there were no signs of forced entry or disturbance in the house.
The lawyers also say Taherah Ghassemi’s purse and wallet were at the house, and only her cellphone and vehicle keys could not be found.
Damico and Stockstill allege the search warrant contained “no probable cause of a crime sufficient to justify a search of anyone’s cell phone.”
Nicholson, at the time he requested the search warrant, was aware of texts in which her son used profane language to her and told her “why don’t you leave me alone,” Damico and Stockstill contend.
The alleged purpose of the search warrant, they say in the suppression motion, was to document conversations between the victim and her son.
“I think that the son is a major suspect in this case,” Damico said Wednesday in an interview.
Not so, said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III.
“He is NOT a suspect,” Moore said Thursday in an email.
Damico said it is his understanding that Hamed Ghassemi remains jailed in Iran, but he does not know why. Family friends have said he was accused of becoming a Christian.
Prosecutors have not indicated whether they will seek the death penalty against Hamid Ghassemi, Ashpaugh and Daniel Humberto Richter, of Walker. The fourth man charged in Taherah Ghassemi’s killing, Skyler Williams, of Denham Springs, is not eligible for the death penalty because he was only 17 at the time of the slaying.
All four have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.
Hamid Ghassemi’s cellphone records showed he received a call from Ashpaugh about 12:45 a.m. the morning after his former wife disappeared, the Sheriff’s Office said previously. Ashpaugh’s phone records revealed he had been at Taherah Ghassemi’s house the night she disappeared and at the sites where her burned car was found and her body was located, authorities said.
Ashpaugh told detectives he went with Richter and Williams to Taherah Ghassemi’s home and abducted her. She was put in the trunk of her 2004 Jaguar sedan and driven to a heavily wooded area near Pine Grove, where she was buried, the Sheriff’s Office has said.
Her burned car was discovered April 12 on a stretch of Chalma Avenue in Baton Rouge surrounded by fields.
Hamid Ghassemi, who owned Import One and Import One Elite on Airline Highway, is accused of paying $10,000 to have her killed. Richter once worked at one of the car dealerships, detectives have said.