In May 2004, Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns were found guilty of murder in a notorious triple murder case, in what many consider to be an almighty miscarriage of justice.
The duo, just 19 at the time of the deaths, were convicted of murdering Rafay’s parents and sister, despite having seemingly been many miles away at the time. Significant evidence pointed towards the murders being carried out by radical Islamists.
However, Burns and Rafay “confessed” to committing the murders as a result of an elaborate scheme known as the “Mr. Big” technique – something that is illegal in the United States.
But this “confession” was enough to secure a conviction for the Prosecution, despite a total lack of forensic evidence, and Burns and Rafay having alibis.
The Rafay and Burns case has caused fervent debate in recent years, and received new interest due to the case being covered in the first two episodes (True East) by Netflix’s popular documentary The Confession Tapes.
In this article, we look at the full story, and encourage you to cast your opinion on the case in the poll at the end of the article.
The Triple Murder
Between the evening of July 12 and the early hours of July 13, 1994, a triple-murder in Bellevue, Washington state took place. Tariq, Sultana and Basma Rafay were all killed.
Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns had been staying at the Rafay residence during a break from college. The two had left the house a few hours earlier, having gone to Seattle for the night. There, they watched the “Lion King” at a cinema, visiting a club, before eating at a diner.
In the early hours of July 13, the son of the Rafay’s – Atif – returned home to find his parents both dead, and his sister critically wounded, she would soon die of her injuries. The trio had all been bludgeoned to death.
He was accompanied by his friend, Sebastian Burns. At 2:01am, Sebastian Burns called the Police, notifying them of their grizzly discovery. Burns is heard to be panicking, and in a state of shock.
The Police arrived and questioned both Burns and Rafay. The two were put into a hotel for the night by the Police, who advised them to get some sleep.
Immediately, the Police suspected that Burns and Rafay were involved in the murders. Bob Thompson, a detective for the Bellevue Police department, stated that both were acting “strange” in the aftermath of the murders.
Burns and Rafay were picked up by Sebastian’s father, Dave Burns, and brought back to Canada. But the press started reporting that the two had “fled”, which caused many to suspect the two had something to hide.
It is a bone of contention in the documentary as to how the press received this information. Detective Thompson accidentally has a slip of the tongue, suggesting that the Police intentionally told the press, before quickly back-tracking on this.
Rafay missed his family’s funerals, reportedly, he was not informed of the event. He was later pictured laughing at the mosque where the funerals were held.
Rafay and Burns bought an expensive car in the days following this. Rafay was due to receive a windfall of over $300,000, due to life insurance payouts following his family’s deaths.
With Rafay and Burns in Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) – essentially known as the FBI of Canada – launched an investigation into the Rafay family deaths.
The Canadian Investigators Launch an Elaborate “Mr. Big” Scheme
Hell-bent on the idea that Burns and Rafay were guilty, the RCMP launched an elaborate sting in an effort to induce a confession from Burns and Rafay.
The sting is known as the “Mr. Big” technique, and is a highly-controversial technique that is illegal in the United States, but crucially, legal in Canada at the time. It has, incidentally, since been outlawed in Canada.
The technique takes months to enact, and involves highly-skilled, undercover Police officers disguising themselves as criminals. The criminals befriend the “suspects”, before trying to coerce a confession out of them.
The sting involved a house being wire-tapped, meaning that the RCMP could listen to every conversation that Burns and Rafay had.
Burns had been to get his haircut, and, upon returning to his car, was met by a man he considered to be a stranger (but actually an undercover officer), that had managed to lock his keys in his car, and requested Burns drive him to the nearest town.
Mr. Big Scheme
At some point, while Burns was driving the officer, the duo got talking, with Burns eventually offered a job-of-sorts. He was invited to join the officer and others in some rather shady activities – such as counting money.
A culture of crime and wrongdoing is created. Wads of cash, passing guns around freely, and other illicit activities become commonplace. Clearly, Burns knew he was working for criminals.
Over the course of the next few months, Atif Rafay was brought into the fold, as was their close friend Jimmy Miyoshi. This process went on for a few weeks, and then, the undercover officers put their plan into action.
Burns was informed that the head of the criminal organisation – “Mr. Big” – wanted to meet him. Mr. Big indeed met with Burns, and informed him that he knew he was being linked to the triple-murder case.
Mr. Big relentlessly questioned Burns, and tried to get him to admit to his role in the crime. Burns at first refuted any suggestions that he was involved. He had consistently denied that he and Rafay had committed the murders.
However, a turning point came when Mr. Big told Burns of “evidence” that the Police had, that the criminals had managed to get hold of. This evidence was apparently related to DNA evidence, and Mr. Big made it seem to Burns that he would be arrested at any moment.
Of course, there was no “evidence”. Mr. Big told Burns that he could make it all go away, if he just confessed to him. Mr. Big suggested that he needed to be able to trust Burns, which involved telling him the truth.
And so, Burns did indeed tell Mr. Big that he and Atif had committed the murders – nonchalantly stating that they had done so during the film. Mr. Big continued asking questions – eventually getting a story from Burns about how they had committed the murders.
Rafay also spoke with Mr. Big. He and Burns spoke about how they had committed the murders naked, as a means to avoid detection. They also spoke of how they had bludgeoned the three people with a baseball bat.
Rafay was asked how it felt to “kill your parents and knock off your sister?”. He stated “pretty rotten, but it was tempered by the fact that I felt it was necessary. I think of it as a sacrifice”.
Their friend Miyoshi was also brought in by Mr. Big, with the Police also suspecting that he had something to do with the crime. He also spoke about the murders, and how he supposedly knew that Rafay and Burns had committed them.
However, there were marked inconsistencies in the accounts of Burns, Rafay and Jimmy Miyoshi. During questioning, the three men contradicted one another with their accounts. Clearly, there was no cohesion – as if each was making the story up.
Of course, it is important to remember that Burns, Rafay and Miyoshi had been vilified in the media, and therefore, had a besmirched reputation. Therefore, it was difficult to find work.
Having an opportunity to make money was therefore enticing, and made telling Mr. Big what he wanted to hear would be tempting. Moreover, Mr. Big had promised he could make the “evidence” go away, essentially absolving the trio of any blame.
This entire process took four months. After the confession had been made, the undercover officers vanished, and Burns and Rafay were arrested and formally charged with murder by the Canadian Police.
The trio were put in jail until further notice. The level of inconsistencies left the Police with flimsy evidence at best, but they were determined to proceed with questioning the three men, which represented the first chance to interview them under caution.
Burns and Rafay continued to deny any involvement throughout Police questioning. But they suffered a profound blow, as Miyoshi relented to the Police’s non-stop questioning, and essentially told the Police everything they wanted to hear.
By basically waving the white flag, Miyoshi left his friends Burns and Rafay without a leg to stand on. Miyoshi was granted immunity after incriminating Burns and Rafay, and returned to Japan, and wasn’t heard from for a number of years, until the trial. Miyoshi had faced 99 years in prison had he not given evidence.
Over the following years, there were a range of lawsuits and hearings in regards to Burns and Rafay being extradited to face justice in the United States. The Canadian government wanted assurances that the United States would not seek the death penalty.
The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada. Various postponements, different hearings and other delays meant it took years for the case to get to trial. In 2001, finally Burns and Rafay were extradited to the United States after assurances were provided that they would not receive the death penalty.
Two years later – on 23rd November 2003 – the trial finally started. This came more than nine years after the crime itself – a ridiculous length of time.
The trial judge ruled that certain pieces of evidence would be inadmissible. A tip-off by an informant about a possible Islam-motivated slaying of the Rafay family was not allowed. The jury were also prohibited from listening to a false confession expert.
However, the jury were showed Miyoshi’s interview, where he said that he was aware of their plans to murder, and said the motive of this was financial. This was the main theory that the Police put forward.
Burns and Rafay struggled to convince the court. They had argued that the media coverage of the case was biased, which meant the jurors were biased. They argued that they wouldn’t get a fair trial.
A further blow to Burns would follow – as a jailhouse tryst with his public defender Theresa Olson resulted in Burns losing his lawyer. The two had sex, in what Olson stated was a “hug gone bad”.
On 26th May, Burns and Rafay were found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder. The jury were unanimous in their decision, and sentencing of Burns and Rafay would follow.
At the sentencing hearing, Burns went on a rambling hour-long speech about his innocence. The judge excoriated Burns, criticising his lack of remorse. The judge did suggest that Rafay showed remorse.
Both Rafay and Burns were sentenced to 3 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. Appeals followed, though they proved fruitless. The Innocence Project took on the case, but so far there has been little progress made.
Sebastian Burns has now exhausted all his appeals. Atif Rafay is aiming to put forward his final appeal, with his lawyers assisting him. The appeal is progressing its way through the American legal system.
Evidence Suggesting Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns Were GUILTY
It is important to note that this isn’t a clear cut story. In fact, the Netflix documentary omitted some details which may result in many people’s opinion of the case changing.
Firstly, the cinema that Rafay and Burns visited was just 10 minutes away from the Rafay residence. It is therefore possible that they could have gone to watch a movie, returned to the residence, killed the family and then returned to the cinema. A cinema employee testified that it would have been easy for a person to come and go from the cinema without being spotted.
At one point, it was argued that Rafay and Burns had staged a robbery. The VCR player and Walkman device weren’t exactly valuable, but they were missing. Some file boxes were also pushed over. Could this have been Burns and Rafay trying to make the event look like something it wasn’t? If it was the Islamic terror group, then why would they have taken the VCR and Walkman?
Others have argued that it is almost the “perfect crime” – so perfect in fact that it almost seems like it must have been planned. The potential killers stayed at the house for a week prior to the deaths in order to explain any DNA. They had seemingly iron-clast alibis through the cinema. And by leaving generous tips, they made sure that they were noticed.
During the confession, while Sebastian is recounting the murders, Atif seemed to be happily laughing along – which would be a strange reaction. Is this really the reaction of someone who had lost his family?
Moreover, Sebastian crashed his car when he was younger. But in an effort to secure an insurance payout, he moved his car next to a cinema, and told the insurance company that he had been watching a movie at the time – so he couldn’t have been responsible. This is a similar alibi to the one Rafay and Burns used.
Then another revelation is that Sebastian had previously participated in a play where two friends committed the perfect murder. The crime in question involved a baseball bat – which is what may have been the instrument used to kill the Rafay family.
Evidence Suggesting Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns Were INNOCENT
However, there is a large body of evidence that suggests Rafay and Burns are innocent – and have been the victims of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in recent decades.
Without doubt, the majority of the evidence points towards an Islam-motivated murder. The Police received intelligence from multiple sources that the terror group Al-Fuqra had put out a hit on a prominent Muslim couple in Washington. Douglas Mohammed – an FBI informant who had a track record of providing “useful” info to the FBI – contacted the Bellevue Police about the murders.
The Rafay father had questioned the practice of Islam. Therefore, this would have undoubtedly riled up Muslims – with the informant Mohammed saying that he had heard that the Rafay father was being targeted. For whatever reason, the Bellevue Police didn’t pursue this information. They stated that Mohammed was not credible, and that he had actually identified dozens of people that may have been involved.
The Rafay mother had been killed, with her bodies facing eastwards with a headscarf placed over her. To some, this showed a religious angle to the murder. This certainly added weight to the suggestion that religion had played a role.
In the “confessions” of Rafay and Burns, there were a myriad of inconsistencies between their accounts. It did seem as if they were making it up as they go along – in an effort to please “Mr. Big”. There was little to suggest there was a cohesive account of what happened.
Then there was also the question of the pubic hair that was found in Mr. Rafay’s bed. The hair was not a match to either Burns or Rafay. Many suggested the hair must have belonged to the killer, who would therefore be a third party. This is of course, unless Miyoshi was the third party.
Then there is the fact that the confession was elicited through the means of the Mr. Big technique. If any of us put ourselves in the shoes of Rafay and Burns – many of us would do what they did. They were in trouble, and the “criminals” offered them a way out. They put immeasurable pressure on them until they finally relented. Under such circumstances, nearly anyone would buckle.
Ultimately, prosecution lawyers are asked to prove the guilt of the defendants beyond a reasonable doubt. If ever there was a case where there would be reasonable doubt – surely this is it.
Where are Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay in 2022?
Both Burns and Rafay are alive to this day. They are incarcerated in prison. Unless something out of the ordinary arises – Burns and Rafay will spend the rest of their lives in prison. While some state this is a just sentence for their guilt, others believe their innocence.
Rafay has married since being in prison, and has advocated for prison educational programs. He has published a range of essays, with his best-known work being “On the Margins of Freedom” – in which he discusses the decline of his life behind bars in The Walrus, a Canadian journal.
Burns has reportedly struggled in prison, and has reportedly suffered from serious mental health problems. He is believed to spend much of his time in solitary confinement.
The Mr. Big technique has been outlawed in Canada since Burns and Rafay were imprisoned. For their supporters, this is a further sign of the miscarriage of justice they faced.
Burns and Rafay have a strong support, with the episode of Netflix’s The Confession Tapes furthering their support. An official website called the Rafay Burns Appeal exists too. Burns’ family have constantly supported him.
The Rafay and Burns case is one of the most polarising cases in recent years. There are distinct arguments for both sides, and it is either an enormous miscarriage of justice, or justice has been served.
In a case like this, there are simply no winners. Three innocent people lost their lives, and two further lives have been ruined. Whichever way you look at it, this is a sad case.