From the beginning, firefighters and police were suspicious about a fire that erupted at 3:30 a.m. June 16 inside a Toyota Corolla on the side of a Montgomery County highway.
The driver, a 33-year-old woman, was lying face down outside the car, screaming in pain. The car doors were locked. Inside, a small child lay motionless on the floor in the rear. Rescuers tried to get to him but couldn’t.
On Friday, authorities revealed the outcome of their six-week investigation: First-degree murder and first-degree arson charges against Narges Shafeirad, the mother of the boy — a bright, curious 5-year-old named Daniel.
Police say that before setting the fire, Shafeirad poisoned her son by forcing him to swallow at least one full bottle of medicine containing the antihistamine diphenhydramine. They said she got the boy into her car, apparently after he was dead, doused the interior with gasoline and set it on fire.
“When you look at the depravity — she murdered her son and attempted to cover it up — it’s awful,” said Capt. Darren Francke, commander of the Montgomery police department’s major crimes unit. “He was a little kindergartner.”
Francke said the motive remains unclear, but he noted that Shafeirad and her husband had gone through a bitter divorce and custody fight over their only child.
Shafeirad was due in court about 10 hours after the burning car was found for a final hearing in the divorce case, according to court records. In earlier court battles, Shafeirad’s husband alleged she assaulted Daniel, while Shafeirad alleged her husband had physically abused her for years.
Shafeirad initially wanted primary custody of Daniel. After negotiations, she agreed to joint custody, according to court records.
Throughout the bitter proceedings, though, one opinion was shared by both sides: what kind of child Daniel was.
“He was angelical,” said David Gavin, an attorney for Daniel’s father, Hamid Azimi-Dana. “Inquisitive, kind. He couldn’t have been a nicer child.”
“A very, very bright kid,” said Farrokh Mohammadi, an attorney for Daniel’s mother.
He was stunned at the turn of events.
Sometimes when Shafeirad came to Mohammadi’s office for meetings, she brought Daniel. They interacted and joked with what seemed obvious affection. “Everything she did was for Daniel’s benefit,” Mohammadi said.
Shafeirad remains hospitalized with burns at an undisclosed facility. It was unclear if she had retained a criminal attorney.
Daniel’s father, Azimi-Dana, 51, declined to speak when contacted by a reporter Friday. “Today is a bad day,” he said.
The death of his son, and the investigation into how it happened, have devastated Azimi-Dana, Gavin said. Azimi-Dana made burial plans even as the child’s body was still at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.
“Daniel was the beginning and end of his life,” Gavin said. “He is saddened beyond words.”
Both parents were born in Iran, Gavin said. He said Azimi-Dana immigrated to the United States and eventually ran a business in Maryland that supplied produce to Middle Eastern restaurants and stores. At some point, while Shafeirad was living in Iran, family members arranged for the two to meet, Gavin said.
The couple was married in Tehran on Dec. 17, 2007, according to court records. She continued to live there, while Azimi-Dana traveled back and forth to the United States, according to the records.
Daniel was born July 21, 2009. By July of 2011, all three family members were living in Gaithersburg.
But the marriage was troubled. In June, 2013, the couple separated. A month later, Shafeirad and Azimi-Dana filed requests for restraining orders against each other — with each alleging in court filings that the other had physically abused them in front of their son.
Azimi-Dana stated that on June 19, 2013, as they drove home from dinner, Shafeirad started yelling and punching him. When they got home, he alleged, she attacked him while he was holding Daniel. “She screamed that she was going to kill me while I slept in my bed,” Azimi-Dana wrote. He said he didn’t call the police because he didn’t want to upset Daniel.
In her court filings, Shafeirad asserted that Azimi-Dana had abused her for years. He “always made threats that if I ever tell anyone or call the police, he will get revenge and take away my son and send me back to Iran where women don’t have rights,” Shafeirad wrote. She said that it was her husband who attacked her in the car and in front of Daniel on June 19, 2013.
“I am in fear for my safety of the safety of my child,” she wrote.
Shafeirad and Azimi-Dana agreed to stay away from each other without admitting to the alleged abuse. A joint custody arrangement was worked out for Daniel, who stayed with his mother four days a week and his father three days a week, according to court documents.
With limited command of English, Shafeirad got a job looking after an older Iranian immigrant, said A.P. Pishevar, one of her attorneys in the divorce case. Her life was hard, but it was one she seemed to be handling. “She was struggling as an immigrant to make it,” Pishevar said. “But she was not a complainer.”
But during the divorce proceedings, her husband’s attorney, Gavin, indicated she had hurt Daniel in the past.
“Twice now we’ve been to Child Protective Services,” Gavin told a family magistrate on June 17, 2014. “One time the child was taken to the hospital and was banged up and abused, and he had claimed it was the mother. Later, he recanted that.”
In an interview, Gavin said that Montgomery’s Child Protective Service’s office took no action. “They didn’t feel it could be substantiated,” he said.
Pishevar said the agency conducted an investigation and ruled out the abuse.
A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment Friday, saying she could not discuss specific cases.
Francke, the police captain, said investigators believe they know what brand of medicine Shafeirad gave her son, but he declined to say at this point. “It was an extraordinary amount,” he said. “She forced him to drink it.”
He said the death was no accident, that Shafeirad “intentionally overdosed him.”
Fire investigators determined the fire started in the front-seat area, officials said. Francke said he did not think that Shafeirad intended to take her own life. “I don’t believe she wanted to kill herself,” he said.
The autopsy showed Daniel was dead before the fire started. “Thankfully,” Francke said, “he did not have to suffer from the fire.”