The ex-wife of a Hawthorne man on trial for insurance fraud stemming from the drowning deaths of their two severely autistic sons told a downtown jury Thursday how she escaped a submerged car at the Port of Los Angeles while her former husband climbed a ladder to safety without attempting to save the trapped children.
Rehab Diab told the panel in the federal criminal trial of Ali Elmezayen that on April 9, 2015, the Egyptian-born defendant took the family for a drive to the port to buy fish and look at ships. He began searching for a parking spot, Diab testified through an Arabic translator, before pointing the vehicle towards the murky ocean.
“I thought he would stop, but the car accelerated towards the sea and I started to scream,” Diab told the jury, adding that Elmezayen did not apply the brakes or utter a noise.
When the car containing Diab and their two sons hit the water, the defendant “went out through the window,” making no effort to help anyone in the submerged vehicle, the woman testified in Los Angeles federal court.
“I started to feel that death was close and I started to recite my prayers,” Diab said. “I started to move my legs very fast and this helped me to float on the water. The only thing I remember is I managed to get out of the car.”
After a nearby fisherman threw her a life preserver, Diab — who did not know how to swim –saw her ex-husband at the ladder, she said.
“I started to scream loudly that the children are still in the car,” she testified, telling jurors that Elmezayen climbed to the landing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Wyman alleged that Elemezayen secretly purchased accidental death insurance policies providing more than $6 million in coverage on himself, Diab and their three children in 2012 and 2013. A third son was not in the vehicle and followed his mother on the stand Thursday to describe Elmezayen’s often violent relationship with Diab.
The prosecutors alleged that the defendant paid nearly $6,000 a year for the policies — even though he told investigators he was earning less than $30,000 a year — and called at least two of the insurance companies to confirm they would not investigate accidental death claims made two years after the policies were purchased.
Elmezayen faces nearly two dozen counts, including mail and wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering in the federal case. He also faces a possible death penalty in a capital murder case brought by Los Angeles County prosecutors, stemming from the drowning deaths of his 13-year-old son, Elhassan, and his 8-year-old son, Abdelkrim, along with the attempted murder of Diab, but the federal case is proceeding first.
“The deaths were not an accident,” Wyman said last week in his opening statement. “He intentionally killed them.”
Elmezayen’s attorney, Christy O’Connor, countered in her statement that there was no plan to commit murder for financial gain. Instead, she alleged, her client loved his family but is a “kook” who suffers from hypochondria and severe anxiety — which explains his purchase of copious amounts of life insurance.
“He is massively neurotic, anxious and worried about everything,” O’Connor said, conceding that buying multiple policies is something “a normal person would not do.”
Diab told the jury that the family suffered from money problems so severe that they lived at one point in a near-abandoned back house in Watts. Diab said both she and her then-husband worked security guards and received $2,500 a month from the state to care for the two disabled children.
In her cross examination of Diab, O’Connor implied that the multiple insurance policies were not kept secret from Diab, who had her own legal problems as a result of a sham marriage she entered into with a homeless man in order to remain in the United States.
O’Connor told jurors last week that the deaths resulted from “pedal error” — when a driver, intending to step on the brakes, accidentally hits the accelerator instead. Distractions, both inside and outside Elmezayen’s 1998 Honda Civic, complicated the situation, the defense attorney alleged.
Elmezayen collected more than $260,000 in insurance proceeds from American General Life Insurance and Mutual of Omaha Life Insurance on the accidental death insurance policies he had taken out on the children’s lives, Wyman said.
Elmezayen, wearing a head covering, listened to an Arabic translator through headphones as his ex-wife and 19-year-old son testified against him. At several points he appeared to sob.
The murder allegations against Elmezayen did not fall under federal jurisdiction.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office initially declined to file a case against him in December 2017, citing a lack of evidence proving he intentionally drove off the dock.
A Los Angeles police mechanic told prosecutors the brakes on the car appeared to be malfunctioning after it was pulled from the water.
It wasn’t evident if the problem occurred before the crash or was a result of salt water damage, according to the charge evaluation worksheet from the District Attorney’s Office.
Further investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Harbor and Robbery-Homicide divisions and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office resulted in the filing of state murder charges in July.
The trial resumes Friday when the defense presents its case.