A Virginia immigrant’s son dies behind the wheel of a symbol of his success


Shaquia Choudhry and Naswem Choudhry grieve the loss of their relative, 21-year-old Sami Ullah, on March 13 in Arlington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
March 16, 2013

They gathered at the place where he died, standing on a grassy patch on the Virginia side of the Key Bridge to inspect the accident scene.

The patriarch of the family, a Pakistani immigrant who built a fortune in the local real estate market, stared down at the fragments of what was once a symbol of his success: shards of a 2008 BMW M5 that he had given his 22-year-old son, Sami Ullah.

He and the rest of his family were searching for clues to relieve their anguish: How could Sami have driven 90 miles an hour last weekend on the Key Bridge? How did he die when the two passengers survived?

“I don’t know what made Sami do this,” said his brother Rabi Ullah, 27, a Leesburg real estate investor, picking up bits of the BMW. “He’d only drive fast on straightaways.” It was Rabi who tested the car’s maximum velocity, once gunning it to 140 miles per hour on the Beltway, he said.

Their father, Amjad Mahmood — who immigrated to Northern Virginia in the 1980s, found work as a Pizza Hut dishwasher and eventually transformed himself into a millionaire real estate investor — could barely speak.

“I am just confused,” said Mahmood, 50, looking for spots of Sami’s blood on the ground.

Dedicated and driven

Sami was the youngest in the family. He was also the smartest. At Heritage High School in Loudoun County, his friends and family said, he always got high grades and dreamed of attending Virginia Tech. His posse of friends — other young Muslims bound by their love of Kobe Bryant, the Koran and kabob joints — sometimes skipped classes, and tried wooing Sami to do the same.

“He’d always say, ‘No, I need to finish my class,” said longtime friend Mohammed Salous, 22, a Strayer University student. “He was the most successful out of all of us.”

Sami was wedded to his faith. He slept beneath a plaque inscribed with a Muslim prayer. During the holy month of Ramadan, he helped spread out the prayer rugs and prepare pitchers of water for the three-hour services held at the Leesburg branch of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society.

“And as soon as everyone left, he’d take all the rugs away. He knew how to read the Koran. He was always in touch with God,” Salous said. “That was because of his parents.”

Sami’s father came to America first.

Raised on a farm in a village in eastern Pakistan, Mahmood wanted to live in America, home to his favorite movies and Olympic teams, and escape what he thought was a place too impoverished to raise children. His own father, a mailman, dismissed Mahmood’s ambitions as naive.

But Mahmood persisted, and in 1987 he amassed enough money to fly to the United States. By then, he was a married father of two children. For the next 10 years, he lived apart from his family in Pakistan while he built a new life for them thousands of miles away.

In Northern Virginia, Mahmood worked two jobs: manufacturing residential doors and washing dishes and delivering pizzas for Pizza Hut.

One day, Mahmood was delivering pizzas to an imposing home in Leesburg. He promised himself, if he delivered enough pizzas and made enough doors, he would buy one just like it.

He began reading the foreclosure listings in the local paper, Leesburg Today. He learned about courthouse auctions and began bidding, and winning. Thanks to his cousin — already pursuing the American dream with a chain of Fairfax County halal grocery stores — Mahmood got a loan big enough to purchase his first townhouse for $92,000. He fixed it up and sold it for $160,000.

He was off — buying and flipping, seizing on the budding Washington area real estate market.

He made annual visits back to Pakistan, where his wife, Tahira Yasmin, gave birth to Sami in 1991. Six years later, Mahmood’s wife and three kids were able to join him in the United States.

The father, now a U.S. citizen bulging with ambition and dollars, formed several companies, including Ghani Investments (named after his father), which buys and sells homes in Northern Virginia; and in Maryland, STAAR Properties, each letter signifying the first initial of his name, his wife’s, and three kids’.

“Before I had kids, I thought I had nothing,” Mahmood said. “Soon, when I had kids, I thought, ‘God gave me everything for my kids.’ ”

He was especially proud of Sami and wanted to reward his son for his academic prowess.

Sami was longing for a BMW for his high school graduation. Sure, the parents said. Which one?

“I still remember him looking online at BMWs, and he was looking at M3s,” Rabi recalled. “And we were like, ‘Why don’t you get an M5? He was like, ‘Really? I can?’ ”

No one in the family worried about giving a teenager such a powerful machine. Everyone joked that Sami drove like an old man. And local court records don’t show that Sami had any speeding tickets.

The cost of the car didn’t deter them either. Its price tag: $72,700, plus several thousands of dollars more for a new air filtration system and a louder exhaust.

To his parents, buying an M5 for their son symbolized their ascendancy into the upper class. It also reflected their hope that Sami would one day run his father’s businesses.

“I worked very hard for my kids. He deserved it,” Mahmood said. “He was so happy.”

The sleek white BMW arrived in 2009 on Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Sami could not wait to drive the car to his mosque and show it to his friends.

His license plate, evoking the car’s rivalry with Mercedes-Benz, read: “BENZ ETR.” He even gave his new ride a name: “Snow White.”

Before showing it off, Sami and Rabi decided to give Snow White a bath.

Rabi insisted that he wash it alone. As the older brother who didn’t go to college, Rabi wanted to bestow his own gift on Sami, whose A’s in high school and at Virginia Tech sparked pride.

But Sami, a careful dresser who wore nice shoes, cologne and True Religion jeans, was fastidious about his car, too. As Rabi washed the BMW, Sami supervised, reminding him to double dip the soapy rags and watch out for dust particles.

“He was so happy at the fact that the car actually arrived on Eid,” Rabi said. “Sami said, ‘How good is that? This car is a blessing.’ ”

Losing control

The police delivered the news on a sunny March Sunday: Sami was dead.

At first, no one believed it. Then Rabi became so agitated that he flung his clenched right hand into the glass cover of the family grandfather clock.

Sami, the police told them, had been driving earlier that Sunday morning, March 10, about 90 miles per hour on the Key Bridge. He had one passenger in the front and another in the back.

At 4:58 a.m., as Sami turned off the bridge into Arlington, the front left wheel of the BMW hit a curb, and he lost control of the car. The BMW flipped onto its right side, then onto its roof, sliding into another curb with such force that the car flipped at least three times in the air, before landing upside down.

The air bags deployed, but Sami was trapped behind the wheel, suffering fatal blows to his head, police said. The BMW’s roof was peeled back almost entirely. Two Virginia transportation department workers, who were just beginning their shift, ran over and extracted the front-seat passenger and found the back-seat passenger, who had been ejected.

They would survive. But not Sami.

Dustin Sternbeck, an Arlington County police spokesman, said the toxicology report, which would show whether Sami had been drinking or using drugs, could take up to 16 weeks to be completed. Police have also not been able to interview the other passengers about their whereabouts before the crash and what prompted Sami to drive so fast.

Rabi said Sami had been at a birthday party in Georgetown.

“I don’t know if his friends in the car hyped him up, or if he was drag racing someone,” Rabi said. “I talked to [one of the passengers], and he said they weren’t drinking, but he doesn’t remember anything after the car hit the first bump.”

Afia Chaudhry, whose son was in the front seat, said her son is still recovering and hasn’t talked with her in detail about what happened.

“It’s very hard to realize you’re going fast in that kind of car,” Chaudhry said. “That could be what happened. But at this point I am not going to start interrogating my son. He’s already grieving for his friend’s loss.”

Sami’s father is still trying to make sense of his son’s death. He said he doesn’t regret buying him the BMW. Sami’s brother feels much the same way.

“Sami was a responsible kid,” Rabi said. “His first and last mistake, I think, was driving that car that night.”

A family says goodbye

At a Leesburg funeral home, Rabi stood over his younger brother’s corpse, and, for the traditional Muslim washing of the dead, chose not to wear gloves. With his right hand injured from having punched the grandfather clock, Rabi could only wash Sami with his left hand.

Rabi dipped his hand in soapy water and carefully massaged it over Sami’s body. Blood occasionally surfaced from the corpse’s nose and ears. Rabi thought it was so strange, he said, that the body didn’t show any major injuries, just minor scratches.

After Rabi dried Sami’s body off, he sprinkled a perfume over him.

“I just wanted to feel him, to touch him. I knew this would be my last time,” Rabi said. “His arms. His shoulders. His mouth. His stomach. His chest. My one injured hand held his.”

Last week, before the family members headed to the Key Bridge to survey the accident scene, they drove to Sami’s gravesite in Frederick at the Al-Firdaus Memorial Gardens.

The women were clad in head scarves as the family stared down at the mound of dirt, with red-and-white flowers sprouting up from the soil. Rabi snapped photos with his phone, then cupped his hands in prayer. And Mahmood crouched to the ground and muttered a prayer of his own, giving his son one final gift.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this story.

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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