The only thing that stands between incarcerated Zulmai Nazarzai and freedom is a duffel bag stuffed with $360,540. Nazarzai, who is not charged with a crime, says he doesn’t know where it is, but the judges who have kept him locked up in an Orange County jail on contempt charges for the past five years don’t believe him.
“This is taking on ‘Les Miserables' proportions, where, if I remember correctly, the original crime of stealing a loaf of bread led to a five year sentence, but he served almost 20 for trying to escape,” Thomas Campbell, dean of Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, told the Orange County Register.
Nazarzai is not a nice man. The California Attorney General’s office filed a civil complaint against him in July 2009, over allegations that he and his girlfriend scammed more than 1,200 distressed and elderly people―teetering on the edge of foreclosure―out of their homes.
Nazarzai’s company, Statewide Financial Group, charged people a fee to secure mortgage loan modifications, but there was no evidence the company was ever successful.
Nazarzai immediately withdrew $426,318 from an undisclosed bank account. Three months later the court ordered him to account for all his assets and Nazarzai said he had $370,540 at an unidentified location. He was ordered to produce it by July 2, 2010, but did not. Instead, he offered a fanciful story of how the money came to be missing.
Nazarzai said he took the cash from a closet, put it in a duffel bag and gave it to his girlfriend, Fasela Sheren, aka Sharon Fasela. She was driving it to the court when she blacked out, had an accident and landed in the hospital. The car was towed away with the duffel bag, which was missing when Sheren tried to claim it.
Nazarzai’s lawyers said a number of people could have taken the money. Orange County Superior Court Judge Andrew Banks talked to them all and found each of them “credible” and didn’t think any of them saw or took the money. “In fact, I find beyond a reasonable doubt that the cash was not in the car and never was placed into it for delivery,” he wrote.
Nazarzai was found to be in contempt of court, but neither he nor his girlfriend have been charged with a crime.
In July 2012, a judge said Nazarzai owed $2,047,041.86 in restitution and the aforementioned duffel bag of cash as a civil penalty. Five months later, the Attorney General’s office went after the money and the judge affirmed the continued incarceration for contempt.
Nazarzai’s lawyers filed a complaint for damages for negligence and false imprisonment in October 2012. They argued his civil case had been settled and their client had been imprisoned for more that the one-year statute of limitations for contempt allowed. They filed a habeas corpus action for Nazarzai’s release that was rejected by the California Supreme Court in January 2014.
Various courts have affirmed the legality of Nazarzai’s continued incarceration and none have indicated when it might end. His attorneys claim he is being held in debtors’ prison and that he should be home while contesting civil claims for money.
The appellate courts continue to regard the incarceration as coercive, not punitive. They just want the money, which they believe he has. But at some point they could come to regard the jail stay as punishment.
The record for the longest jail stay for contempt is held by lawyer H. Beatty Chadwick. A Delaware County judge let Chadwick cool his heels for 14 years when he wouldn’t pay a divorce settlement, claiming he had lost all his money, $2.75 million, in bad investments. He was never charged with a crime and his wife didn’t get any money.