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He threatened his kidnapper on Instagram. They both got prison time.

Jolen Ghorbani was sentenced to 18 months in prison for trying to squeeze his kidnapper for $5,000 in exchange for silence or false testimony

U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md. (Katie Mettler/The Washington Post)
5 min

A year after Jolen Ghorbani was abducted at gunpoint, robbed and beaten, he sent an Instagram message to one of his kidnappers.

Ghorbani gloated at Tray Sherman, who faced a kidnapping charge and the likelihood of prison time. Then he made an invitation.

“Call me if you want to finesse trial,” Ghorbani wrote in the June 2022 message, according to court documents.

Ghorbani, who was set to testify in Sherman’s trial after Sherman pleaded not guilty, repeatedly offered to either decline to testify or lie on the stand to exonerate Sherman in exchange for a bribe of $5,000, according to Instagram chat logs shown in a criminal complaint.

“Either you cough off up sum bread or sit in the feds for next 20 years,” Ghorbani allegedly wrote in one of his messages to Sherman. “Your choice my boy.”

On Friday, Ghorbani, 28, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in U.S. District Court in Maryland for bribery of a witness — in a trial for a crime he was the victim of. A month earlier, Sherman was sentenced to 10½ years in prison for kidnapping Ghorbani.

Attorneys representing Sherman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday evening. Stuart Berman, an attorney representing Ghorbani, said he believed the judge issued a fair sentence.

“This is one of the strangest cases in the history of that courthouse,” he added.

Ghorbani told investigators he was staying at the MGM National Harbor hotel and casino in Oxon Hill, Md., in February 2021 when he met up with two men for a drug deal, according to an affidavit filed against Sherman. Investigators identified Sherman as one of the men.

Sherman drove Ghorbani and the third person from the MGM to the waterfront Wharf development in nearby Washington, D.C., which was observed by security cameras, according to the affidavit. Ghorbani allegedly told investigators that after acquiring cocaine for Sherman and the other man, two more men entered the car and the group threatened Ghorbani with guns.

The four men allegedly took Ghorbani at gunpoint to the boiler room of an apartment building, where they beat him and threatened his life. Two of them returned to Ghorbani’s room at the MGM and stole more than $10,000, according to court documents, after he was forced to give up the password to his hotel room safe. The other two took Ghorbani’s watch, wallet, phone and the cocaine he’d obtained before eventually releasing him. Police said they found Ghorbani with bloody wounds on his face and a broken nose.

Phone conversations tapped by investigators captured Sherman, the three other men and one additional accomplice discussing kidnappings before and after the assault on Ghorbani, according to the affidavit.

Sherman was arrested and charged with kidnapping in March 2021 and pleaded not guilty to a kidnapping charge on an initial appearance in April. The four other men were charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping and had pleaded guilty by April 2022.

The same month, Ghorbani was served a subpoena to testify as a witness in Sherman’s trial, which was scheduled for July, according to court documents. On June 5, Ghorbani allegedly made the first of several offers to rig Sherman’s trial.

“Lol your gonna sit in Prison next decade,” Ghorbani wrote in a message to Sherman on Instagram, according to Ghorbani’s indictment. He then made the offer to “finesse” the trial.

An unnamed witness read the messages on Sherman’s account and relayed them to Sherman, who was detained pending his trial, according to the indictment. Sherman allegedly told the witness to tell Ghorbani that he intended to go to trial.

On the morning of June 18, Ghorbani responded by making his offer to Sherman again, taunting him with the prospect of prison time, prosecutors alleged. He named a price of $5,000, paid in cryptocurrency, to aid Sherman in court.

“Should be focused on that trial date my boy,” Ghorbani messaged, according to his indictment. “How much not to testify???”

“Your trial this month if you want me to forget who you were that morning or how you look …” he added an hour later.

As he messaged Sherman that morning, Ghorbani was bragging about his proposal to another unnamed witness, according to the indictment. He allegedly texted the second witness that “I’m auctioning off his freedom” and added that he was just trying to “make sum bread.”

“Unsend the messages,” the second witness allegedly replied. “Don’t know how lawyers will look at that.”

Ghorbani was charged with bribery of a witness in October 2022 and pleaded guilty in January. Sherman’s trial never proceeded, according to court documents. He pleaded guilty to kidnapping in July.

Berman, Ghorbani’s attorney, wrote in a sentencing memo that Ghorbani had been labeled a “rat” on social media after Sherman and his accomplices were indicted in 2021. He moved from Virginia to Florida, afraid that Sherman’s associates might harm him, and sent the first messages to Sherman in a “drunken episode,” according to Berman’s memo.

Berman added in the memo that the unusual circumstances of Ghorbani’s crime were a situation “straight out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Sentencing guidelines for bribing a witness normally treat the defendant as an accessory to the original crime — in Ghorbani’s case, his own kidnapping, which Berman called “absurd.”

Such a classification would have led to a recommendation of more than eight years in prison for Ghorbani. He ultimately received a sentence of 18 months in prison and three years of supervised release, which Berman said he believed was fair.

“I’ve certainly never seen a case with these kinds of facts before,” Berman told The Washington Post.