Laila Siddique was on her way to examine a patient at Pennsylvania State University’s Hershey Medical Center when her phone began to tremble. The 25-year-old medical student glanced at the screen. It was a text from her father.
Nasir Siddique kept in close touch with his two children. He had come to the United States from Pakistan as a young man, enlisted in the Army and slowly risen through the ranks, working at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2010. He had traded the cigars and whiskey of his youth for a tightknit family, a large house in Bel Air, Md., and Friday prayers at a Baltimore mosque. And he’d recently landed a job as deputy environmental chief at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a century-old military base where he once served as a military officer.
At 57, with a military pension, the new job, a loving wife, and a son and daughter both studying to become doctors, Nasir Siddique had many reasons to be happy.
Instead, he was deeply disturbed.
“Two reasons for my stress,” began his text to his daughter on Sept. 28 at 10:48 a.m. “1. Very stressful job at APG. 2. APG Commander and Director of Public Works took us to tour the inside of a very old historical house (by the main golf course) last month being prepared for demolition.”
“They should not have taken us inside this very old and unsafe house at all,” he wrote. “I have been feeling different since this tour.”
He’d told her about the house once before, but now he seemed more agitated.
“How have you felt different since the tour?” Laila texted back.
“Love you,” he answered.
Her phone, normally buzzing with messages from her father, her mother, Zarqa, and her 19-year-old brother, Farhad, went quiet.
When Laila left the hospital that evening, she called her dad, but he didn’t answer. Neither did her mom, an aide to children with disabilities at an elementary school, or Farhad, a junior at the University of Maryland. When her brother’s roommates told her he hadn’t been seen all day, Laila called the police.
It was well after midnight when there was a knock at Laila’s apartment door in Hershey, Pa. When she opened it, four strangers handed her a number to call, then sat with her as she dialed.
“Your mom was found dead in her bathroom, and then your brother and father were found dead at the University of Maryland,” she recalled a detective saying. “It seems like your dad killed your mom and brother and then he killed himself.”
Nearly two months later, Laila Siddique is still struggling to understand what happened. Prince George’s County Police and the Harford County Sheriff’s Office think that Nasir carried out the violence. They point to physical evidence, including a gun registered to Nasir that was found in his hand and an apparent suicide note.
But Laila refuses to believe that her father could be what criminologists call a “family annihilator” — someone who kills their partners and children before turning their weapon on themselves. Instead, she wonders whether he could have been framed or somehow forced to commit the killings.
Her family and much of her community also reject the official explanation. How, they demand, could the doting family man they knew for decades kill his wife, his son and then himself?
For Laila, the doubt and grief are compounded by the fact that she is suddenly, irrevocably alone.
“Why am I the one who was left?” she asked. “We were all together, all the time. It should have been all of us. I don’t get why I am still here.”
In a photo from his retirement ceremony in 2010, Nasir Siddique stands ramrod straight in his dark blue Army dress uniform, his lieutenant colonel’s silver oak clusters shining. Next to him smiles Laila, at 19 taller than her father. Next to her is her mother, Zarqa, and then a baby-faced Farhad in a baggy white shirt and crimson tie.
Nasir’s military career was an unlikely one. There are fewer than 6,000 Muslims serving in the armed forces. When Nasir enlisted in 1981, following in the footsteps of his older brother Aasi, the number was even smaller.
Nasir was not a brawny soldier. He was barely 5-foot-4 and never saw combat, instead specializing in budgeting and monitoring air quality on bases. He became a U.S. citizen in 1984 while on active duty at Fort Riley in Kansas. Three years later, he earned a degree in engineering from Kansas State University and a promotion to second lieutenant.
“He wanted to make one-star general,” Aasi Siddique said.
It wasn’t long before Nasir added another title: husband. He met Zarqa at a family wedding in Pakistan. She was nine years younger with striking, wide-set eyes. They exchanged love letters in Urdu before marrying in his home town of Sahiwal in 1989.
Laila was born two years later; Farhad in 1996. They were a Muslim military family trying to fit in with those around them. Laila’s earliest memory is of her parents stringing up Christmas lights at their house in Davenport, Iowa.
She was in fifth grade when the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Her father, assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground, explained to her that people might see or treat them differently now.
At work, Nasir stressed the values Islam shared with Christianity and Judaism. When Pakistani friends sent him articles criticizing the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, Nasir politely ignored them. And when Aasi suggested that 9/11 was an inside job, Nasir teased his older brother over the idea.
He didn’t pray five times a day, but he regularly attended Friday prayer at the Islamic Society of Baltimore as well as events at Bel Air’s Islamic community center. He and Zarqa hosted frequent dinners, for which she would spend hours baking guests’ favorite desserts. “Uncle Nasir,” as he was called, took pride in dispensing career advice or loans to family members and friends. He was quick to laugh, his friends said. And he was fiercely protective of his children.
During the more than five years he worked at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, where he was a congressional fellow, he woke up at 3:30 a.m. and commuted 150 miles each day rather than uproot his family again.
“He and my mother talked [on the phone] the entire train ride” back, Laila said. “He was always home in time for dinner.”
Nasir was bored by retirement, his brother said. He sold the family’s 3,000-square-foot house in Bel Air and bought one nearly twice as big as an investment. He took an honorary position on Maryland’s commission on military monuments but hardly ever attended the quarterly meetings.
Then, in April 2015, Nasir landed the environmental job at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Built in 1917, the base had served as the Army’s main chemical-weapons testing site for mustard gas, napalm, sarin, hydrogen cyanide and other deadly substances — a mission that left it one of the most polluted places in the country and the object of a massive cleanup effort.
“Since then, a complete transformation has taken place,” Vance Hobbs, APG’s environmental division chief, told an Army publication in 2013.
As Hobbs’s new deputy, however, Nasir inherited a difficult job. There was still plenty of hazardous material to dispose of at APG, and Nasir, despite his master’s degree in environmental health science, struggled to shoulder his new responsibilities.
“He said his job was very stressful, and he was thinking of a change,” recalled Mian Saleem, one of Nasir’s closest friends.
Base officials declined to comment on Nasir’s performance or his state of mind. Kelly Luster, director of communication at APG, said the base is assisting investigators and “therefore it would be inappropriate to answer your questions at this time.”
Work wasn’t the only source of anxiety. Nasir’s mother died in March, and Nasir took it very hard, his brother said: “He could not hold his emotions.”
There were other hints something was amiss. He complained to Aasi that family members weren’t liking or commenting on his Facebook posts. And when Hobbs was sick, Nasir seemed overwhelmed by the task of substituting for his boss — even for a day.
“Thinking back, that was the first red flag,” Laila said. When her father told her he was going to fill in for Hobbs for a week in August, Nasir was filled with dread.
When Laila saw her father at a wedding a few weeks later, he said his fears had been realized. During his week as acting chief, his superiors had taken him on a tour of the abandoned house near the 16th hole of the base’s Ruggles Golf Course. The visit to the century-old house — with its peeling paint, wraparound porch covered in creepers, and black turret rising above the greens — had shaken him.
The tour guide said that the family that owned the house had mysteriously disappeared nearly a century ago and that the house had been haunted ever since, Nasir recounted. The guide also pointed out the rotting carcasses of a pair of vultures that had been trapped inside the house.
“He was disturbed when he went to the mansion,” said Aasi, who talked to him afterward. “Quite disturbed.”
A few weeks later, on Sept. 17, Zarqa’s birthday, he seemed fine. He woke his wife up with flowers, then took her and their children out for a day of her favorite things, from cupcakes in Georgetown to shopping to crab cakes in Baltimore. “It was perfect,” Laila said.
On Sunday, Sept. 25, Nasir showed up late to a social gathering. Normally impeccable, Nasir was unshaven, his shirt untucked. When one friend made a joke, Nasir bristled, saying he wasn’t in the mood that day.
“Everybody was asking him what’s up,” Saleem said. “He was not regular.”
Three days later, Laila’s phone buzzed as she strolled through the hospital.
“Two reasons for my stress,” she read, never guessing that within hours, her whole family would be gone.
“This is where they found Zarqa’s body,” Aasi said.
It was a bright Sunday afternoon in early October, a week after the funerals, and the Siddique house was still full of mourners. Outside, on a patio overlooking four acres of perfectly mowed grass, cousins dressed in black smoked cigarettes. In the kitchen, family members made tea. And in the master bathroom, Laila and Aasi stared down at the beige marble tile that 10 days earlier had been covered in blood.
“This is where they found my mom,” Laila echoed quietly.
According to police, Nasir Siddique shot his wife in the head as she was getting ready for school. He then climbed into his red Jeep Wrangler Sport, with its U.S. Army stickers, and drove to Farhad’s apartment in College Park.
The last person to see the 19-year-old pre-med major alive was his roommate, Ahmed Hamayun, who stuck his head into Farhad’s room before going to class at 10 a.m.
“He was still sleeping,” Hamayun said.
Nasir arrived at the apartment building sometime before noon. A surveillance camera captured footage of the Jeep pulling up and then parking in the lot.
The Jeep stayed there for nearly 12 hours until, after a frantic search, Hamayun and another roommate found it around 10 p.m. The passenger-side window was broken, and the dashboard lights were on. “I saw Farhad’s dad’s head on the steering wheel,” Hamayun said. “I was too nervous to see if he was okay.”
Inside the car, police found Farhad slumped in the passenger’s seat. A bullet had gone through his head from left to right, shattering the window. Nasir had an entrance wound under his chin and an exit wound near the top of his skull. His .38 revolver, registered in his name years before, lay in his hand, police said.
When officers called the Harford sheriff’s office, deputies — sent to the house earlier by Laila — were already standing over Zarqa’s body. A bullet found at the scene matched Nasir’s revolver.
Inside the Bel Air house, deputies also found two notes. The sheriff’s office has refused to release them, but Laila and Aasi described their contents to The Washington Post.
“Last comment,” begins one, scrawled in black ink. “There is too much stress in my job at APG. Wish it could be corrected by the leadership. It has killed my family & everything.”
At the end of the note, Nasir’s name is printed and signed above the date: Sept. 28, 2016. Another note, titled “Last will” and similarly signed and dated, left the family’s assets to Laila and Farhad.
“There is no evidence that anyone other than Nasir Siddique was involved,” said Lt. Dave Coleman of the Prince George’s police force, adding that the notes are “evidence that he planned these events.”
Instead of evidence of Nasir’s guilt, however, Laila and her uncle see the notes as signs of his innocence.
“Why would he mention my brother in his will if he was going to go kill him?” Laila asked. “It’s odd.”
“The signature does not look like his signature,” Aasi said. “Somebody made him write something.”
Aasi has many conspiracy theories about what could have happened that morning, most of them involving the base.
“Maybe he was given mind-control drugs,” Aasi said, citing decades-old Cold War experiments at APG in which soldiers were given mind-altering substances, including LSD. Maybe the visit to the abandoned house was a threat, he said. Maybe he was framed. “Maybe Nasir knew too much.”
But there is no evidence that APG played any role in the shooting rampage, investigators said. And the ghost stories involving the abandoned house are easily debunked, said Jacob Bensen of the Historical Society of Harford County. Known as the Malcolm Mitchell house, it was named after its owner, who made a fortune canning corn and other foods. Bensen said there is no record of any calamity at the house and that its history is unexciting: It was used as office space by the base but is now slated for demolition.
In a brief interview, Jan Michael Green, one of Nasir’s co-workers at APG, said his breakdown “had nothing to do with the building” he toured. Asked whether Nasir was exhibiting signs of stress at work, he replied, “No doubt.”
Family annihilators are rare, but stress can trigger them. The number of familicides more than doubled after the recession to 42 in 2009 before declining to just 15 in 2013, according to professor Neil Websdale, director of the Family Violence Institute at Northern Arizona University. The attackers are usually men with histories of domestic abuse, he said, but occasionally one will be “a pillar of the community . . . the reputable man whose world basically falls apart and he takes the family down with him.”
“Sometimes, the forces that drive these offenses,” he added, “are inexplicable.”
Nasir had always wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But when Laila called, she was told that Arlington wouldn’t accept someone suspected of a serious crime — a policy confirmed by the cemetery officials. Even when she found her family a plot at King Memorial Park in Baltimore, the Army refused to provide an honor guard. Of the 200 people who attended the triple funeral, none were in uniform.
“My dad had so many Army friends,” she said. “Not one of them has reached out.”
Instead, Laila faces a flood of sympathy from strangers who think that her father is a murderer. He must have had an undiagnosed mental problem, they say. Was he on medications for depression, anxiety or some other condition? Had he shown signs of stress?
But Laila, a woman of science, has no interest in posthumously diagnosing her dad. She said her father was not on medication and was no more stressed than usual.
“People are like: ‘Oh, she’s in denial. She’s in denial.’ Yeah, I’m in denial,” she said, “in the sense that I can’t believe my family is gone, but I can see clearly that this just isn’t who my dad was.”
There are moments when she thinks about quitting medical school. “The three most influential people in my life are gone,” she said, “so what’s the point of continuing, of trying to achieve?” She said she knows her parents “were excited for me to get married and have grandkids. But now, it’s hard for me to see the point of doing things like that.”
She is tempted to use her inheritance to leave Maryland for good — and the memories of the life she lost on Sept. 28. Instead, she is trying to carry on as her parents would have wanted her to. She returned to Penn State earlier this month and is preparing to sell the large house her father bought just two years ago.
As she walked around the house in October, she paused at the entrance to the purple-and-orange den where her father and brother watched Baltimore Ravens and Orioles games together. Jerseys still hung on the walls. Video-game controllers lay on the carpet where they had last been flung.
For a moment, she imagined herself in her brother’s shoes.
“If I could go back in time to that day, if my dad called me to get in the car, I would still get in,” she said. “I would run down and get into the car — without a second thought.”