Detroit — FBI agents were unable to stop a doctor from allegedly mutilating the genitalia of 7-year-old girls at a Livonia clinic despite installing a secret video camera outside the facility days earlier, The Detroit News has learned.
Multiple sources confirmed agents installed the camera outside the Burhani Medical Clinic in Livonia on Jan. 25, nine days before two Minnesota girls allegedly were brought to Metro Detroit for a procedure practiced by members of their small Shia Muslim sect, the Dawoodi Bohra.
The camera captured a minute-by-minute recording of events outside the clinic Feb. 3 but there is no indication in court records that investigators were watching the surveillance footage in real time, were aware of its significance initially or knew about the alleged surgeries beforehand.
“It’s wildly hypocritical to say a horrific event happened, yet they had a camera and didn’t stop it,” said attorney Mary Chartier, who represents Burhani Medical Clinic owner Dr. Fakhruddin Attar. “I have wild concerns about the government alleging female genital mutilation happened at the clinic yet sat back and watched it happen.”
The discovery raises questions about a central piece of evidence in the FBI-led investigation — evidence prosecutors are using in hopes of securing convictions against three people charged in the nation’s first female genital mutilation case in federal court.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI declined comment.
Interviews and court records reveal the investigative backstory of a case that is being followed closely in India, where the Dawoodi Bohra are based, and by human rights groups opposed to female genital mutilation, a federal crime since 1996.
Attar is charged alongside his wife, clinic manager Farida Attar, and Northville Dr. Jumana Nagarwala. The trio is accused of female genital mutilation, conspiring to commit female genital mutilation and trying to cover up the crimes.
The doctors face up to life in prison if convicted of conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.
The Attars are due in federal court at 1 p.m. Wednesday, when a magistrate judge could release the Farmington Hills couple on bond. Nagarwala, meanwhile, is being held without bond pending a June 27 trial.
It is unclear what originally led FBI agents to the Livonia clinic on Farmington Road, north of Five Mile, and it also is unclear exactly where agents installed the camera. But court records indicate it was installed in a place where agents could see video of the clinic’s parking lot and entrance.
The parking lot is ringed by a row of trees and utility poles east of the intersection of Farmington Road and Rayburn, according to satellite imagery.
Utility poles are an unconventional secret weapon in a federal agent’s tool bag. Agents from the FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security Investigations routinely install secret cameras atop utility poles to capture footage of suspected criminal activity.
The cameras are camouflaged to blend with utility pole equipment. The camera can be rotated and zoomed while capturing footage 24 hours a day that agents can monitor remotely via the internet.
Investigators do not need search warrants if the cameras shoot footage in a place where a person would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, legal experts said.
“You are allowed to use it under the law to see what would otherwise be exposed to somebody if they were on a utility pole, like a utility worker,” said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Gabel, a partner with the Jones Day law firm in Detroit, who is not involved in the case.
After FBI agents learned about a possible connection between the clinic and female genital mutilation, investigators installed a pole camera outside the clinic on Jan. 25, sources told The News.
The sources help fill a gap in the indictment and related documents filed in federal court.
The pole camera is not revealed in any of the publicly available court records. Prosecutors also did not divulge when agents installed the camera.
There is no indication in court records that agents knew two girls would be brought from Minnesota to the clinic days after the camera was installed Jan. 25.
The camera was operating nine days later, on Feb. 3, when prosecutors say Nagarwala performed the illegal surgeries, sources said.
At 6:09 p.m., the surveillance footage allegedly shows Nagarwala arriving in the parking lot, according to a criminal complaint.
Three minutes later, Fakhruddin Attar is allegedly seen handing Nagarwala a white bag before the doctors enter the closed clinic, where they were soon joined by Farida Attar, according to court records.
At 6:25 p.m., the footage allegedly shows the first 7-year-old and a woman arrive and enter the clinic.
Seventeen minutes later, the girl and the woman leave after Nagarwala allegedly mutilated the girl’s genitalia, the government claims.
The girl later told investigators she was brought to Metro Detroit for a “special girls’ trip” and visited the doctor to “get the germs out,” according to the criminal complaint.
Nagarwala pinched her on the place where she “goes pee,” the girl told investigators.
A medical examination showed the girl’s genitalia was abnormal and featured scar tissue and small lacerations, the government alleges.
After the first girl left the clinic Feb. 3, the surveillance camera footage allegedly showed a second girl and a woman enter.
After 20 minutes, the girl and woman left and the footage allegedly showed their car driving away, off camera, court records show.
The second girl later identified Nagarwala as the doctor she visited in Metro Detroit and told agents she “got a shot” that hurt and made her scream, according to court records.
A minute after the second girl left, the footage allegedly shows Nagarwala and Fakhruddin Attar leaving the clinic and driving away, according to a court filing.
The quality of the surveillance footage — shot at night in the middle of winter — is unclear.
According to court records, agents did not link Nagarwala and the girls until after Feb. 27 — more than three weeks after they were brought to Metro Detroit.
On Feb. 27, FBI agents armed with a court order obtained Nagarwala’s phone records. The records showed a series of communications between Nagarwala’s phone and a Minnesota phone number, according to court records.
The Minnesota phone belonged to the first victim’s family, FBI Special Agent Kevin Swanson wrote in a court filing.
Call records obtained by the FBI showed the family’s phone was near several Farmington Hills hotels on Feb. 3. Agents obtained records from the hotels and were able to pinpoint which hotel the girls’ families stayed at in Farmington Hills, court records show.
Along with tracking the girls, a Homeland Security Investigations agent claimed in an April 20 court filing that investigators were able to watch the surveillance video and identify the girls outside the clinic Feb. 3.
Nagarwala, who has been fired from her job as an emergency room physician at Henry Ford Health System, has denied performing female genital mutilation. She merely removed mucous membrane from the girls’ genitalia, placed the material on gauze pads and gave it to their families for burial, defense lawyer Shannon Smith said in court.
Fakhruddin Attar was not aware of any crimes committed at his clinic, his lawyer said.
According to court records, the doctor said Nagarwala treated girls at his clinic for genital issues 5-6 times a year, for free and usually on Friday evenings or Saturdays when the clinic is closed.
Farida Attar’s lawyer has declined comment.
Federal agents have used the so-called pole cameras for about 30 years, occasionally to devastating effect in court.
But the cameras come with a potential shortcoming: in some cases hundreds or thousands of hours of footage for investigators to review.
Pole camera footage helped federal prosecutors secure convictions in one of the region’s largest drug rings in May 2014.
Federal drug agents investigating fez-wearing drug kingpin Carlos Powell secretly mounted video cameras atop utility poles next to drug dealers’ homes and a warehouse to record narcotics shipments and watch millions in cash change hands.
Powell tried to suppress the pole camera footage, failed, and was sentenced to life in prison after leading federal agents on a nationwide manhunt.
More recently, the FBI used a pole camera to monitor activity outside the Detroit home of Sebastian Gregerson, a terror suspect accused of plotting jihad on behalf of the Islamic State.
Gregerson struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors in March and could be sentenced to five years in prison.
Homeland Security Investigations agents earlier this year had a pole camera outside the Victory Inn motel near the Detroit/Dearborn border to record alleged drug and sex trafficking crimes.
The Victory Inn pole camera generated so much video, alleged drug dealer Terry Pruitt on Monday asked to delay the criminal case so his lawyer could review the footage, including video from the motel’s security system.
“It would take one person five years to view the 1,450 hours of videotape if viewed for eight hours every day of the year,” Pruitt’s lawyer S. Allen Early wrote in a court filing Monday.