By Anna Merlan
By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
Khan's reputation seems to diverge along racial lines in Guyana, where about half the population is of African descent and half of East Indian descent, like him. To many Indo-Guyanese, he is a folk hero, responsible for cleaning up the streets when the country's police force—which is predominantly Afro-Guyanese—couldn't or wouldn't, giving East Indians, who dominate the business community, a layer of protection where none previously existed. Khan has claimed, without copping to the existence of the Phantoms, to have helped the government put down a crime spree stemming from a 2002 prison break, and to have collaborated with the U.S. government in the region, most notably in the case of the safe retrieval of an American diplomat who was kidnapped off a Guyana golf course in 2003. Afro-Guyanese are more likely to associate Khan first and foremost as a leader of the Phantom Squad—a drug runner and thug, to blame for just about every suspicious death in Guyana. (Guyana, like Suriname, is a transshipping point for South American cocaine destined for North America, Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean, according to the DEA.)
"Certainly, the numerous, unexplained deaths that we had in Guyana have not been there" since Khan has been off the streets, says Raphael Trotman, a Guyanese lawyer and founder of the Alliance for Change, a political party that aims to be non-racialized. Trotman says that while he has no direct evidence of Khan's involvement in the Phantoms, things have been noticeably calmer in Guyana since his arrest. "There is a correlation between the lack of deaths and his absence." (Vic Puran, Khan's Guyana-based lawyer, calls the Phantoms—and Khan's involvement in them—just that: a figment of the imagination.)
After Khan's arrest, Simels made two trips to Guyana, where the case has dominated the press, to organize his defense. On one of these trips, in July 2007, he held a press conference at which he seemed to play to Guyana's racial politics in order to argue that Khan was the victim of a politically motivated frame-up. Simels then proceeded to list the names of presumptive witnesses against Khan—even going so far as to spell out their names—and discredit them through linking them to involvement in the drug trade.
In a small country like Guyana—with its population of about 800,000, most located in or around the capital of Georgetown—the naming of witnesses was widely interpreted as putting them at risk of retribution from the Phantoms or from emboldened enemies of the incarcerated Khan.
None of the names blared out by Simels, however, had been listed by the prosecution as witnesses. Dora Irizarry, the presiding judge in the Khan case, granted a government motion to have a gag order placed on Simels. Irizarry wrote that Simels's statements at the press conference "appear to serve no purpose other than to attempt to silence, intimidate, and harass the identified individuals and to put them and their families and friends, many of whom live in Guyana or within Guyanese communities in the United States, in danger." She added that "he practically provided the press with a road map to some of their homes, spelling out names and identifying the family business in Guyana of one named individual." The lawyer's comments, she wrote, "ran so obviously contrary to his obvious ethical duties that, at one point, even members of the press . . . questioned the propriety of Simels's remarks."
It wasn't only the press that was questioning Simels's propriety—and it wasn't only Simels's public remarks that were being scrutinized. Without his knowledge, the attorney was being monitored by government investigators. According to DEA agent Cassandra Jackson's affidavit, Simels told an informant that if the informant was called to testify, he (or she) "would need to lie about certain things," and that a certain witness, "John Doe No. 1"—the same witness Simels supposedly expressed interest in "neutralizing"—was the linchpin of the government's case. Simels allegedly told the informant that he or she could help Khan by locating "possible government witnesses and/or the witnesses' family members" so that they might help influence potential witnesses' testimonies.
In a subsequent meeting, according to the affidavit, Simels reiterated that he wanted John Doe No. 1 not to testify, saying that "we need to know every little detail of his life" and that "the government's case will collapse if the witness is neutralized by us [pause] or neutralized by us on cross-examination." The affidavit goes on to say, somewhat cryptically, that "Simels further explained that they should explore both options."
"I think [John Doe No. 1] might rethink his position once we start reaching out to his extensions," the informant allegedly said to Simels, continuing, "One thing I've learned is that a man—whether he's a criminal, he's a preacher, he always values his mother. . . . You don't ever want anything to happen to her."
According to the affidavit, Simels then cautioned the informant about killing the witness's mother, but said, "Whatever [Khan's] got to do financially, he's going to do to resolve these issues. [Pause.] There is money that's available." Then the informant, according to the affidavit, "suggested that John Doe No. 1 'might suddenly get amnesia,' " to which Simels allegedly replied, "That's a terrible thing, but if it happens, it happens."