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August 12, 2005

A Murder

In May, a physician much beloved in his Pennsylvania community, a cheerful, gentle and charitable man, was murdered while traveling on a highway. The story is both sad and horrific to most people. To this mystery writer, it’s also troubling.

Dr. Gulam Moonda, age 69, had set out with his wife of 15 years, the former Donna Smouse, age 46, and her mother to visit his nephew, Faroq Moonda, a promising young man whom Dr. Moonda had invited from his native India to come to the US and live in Dr. Moonda’s home. Although the doctor had treated Faroq as a surrogate son (he had no children of his own) the young man insisted on paying his own way through medical school to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. In May, upon finishing his studies, Farroq--and his new wife, who is also a physician--invited Dr. Moonda to their new community in Ohio to look at a house they were thinking of buying.  Dr. Moonda gladly agreed to go, pleased, he told a colleague, to see his nephew happy in his new marriage and career.

To visit the younger couple, Dr. Moonda’s wife Donna drove the family car, a gold Jaguar.  Mrs. Moonda—a blond, former high school cheerleader (she is often characterized as “bubbly,” in newspapers) began her career as a receptionist in another physician’s office but later became a nurse anesthetist, her education generously funded by Dr. Moonda.

On the trip, Mrs. Moonda reported that her husband asked to stop at a convenience store to buy a bottle of water. During the transaction, she says, the doctor may have inadvertently flashed a large wad of cash.  About six miles later--around 6:30pm, still daylight--and just two miles beyond a busy rest area on the Ohio Turnpike, Mrs. Moonda pulled over and asked her husband to take the wheel.  As he exited the car to comply, another vehicle pulled up behind the Jaguar.  The other driver approached the doctor and demanded his wallet. The doctor obeyed at once. Although he had received the money, the thief shot Dr. Moonda in the face and fled in a dark van. Mrs. Moonda, hysterical, did not have sufficient composure to note the gunman’s appearance or to record his license number. She telephoned police, and state troopers arrived shortly, although too late to help Dr. Moonda.

About half an hour later, Faroq and his wife, who had been traveling the same stretch of highway, came upon the scene of the crime, recognized the Jaguar and stopped. They learned Dr. Moonda had died of his gunshot wound.

The police almost immediately suspected a more complicated story than was told.  Why had the thief bothered to shoot Dr. Moonda when the wallet was already turned over? Why had the two witnesses been spared? Why did the convenience store not have video of the doctor buying the bottle of water?  As time went on, other questions arose.

Dr. Moonda has been described as a man who enjoyed his wealth, and newspapers often characterize him as a “millionaire doctor.” His home has been described as a “mansion,” although the house would not be considered grand in communities more affluent than the modest one in which he lived and worked. Dr. Moonda gave generously to the mosque where he worshipped, funded a chair in Islamic studies at a nearby college, and gave money to help friends and family in this country and India. His estate is said to be worth about $6 million.

As they investigated the doctor’s death, police soon discovered Mrs. Moonda had recently pleaded no contest to a charge that she—while working as a nurse anesthetist at local hospital—had stolen quantities of the painkiller fentanyl, which she took home for her own use. She admitted, in fact, to being an addict. She was placed on probation and required to attend a two-month rehabilitation program at a clinic an hour’s drive from her home.

While in rehab—just a month before her husband’s death--Mrs. Moonda began a relationship with Damian Bradford, age 23, a self-described cocaine dealer also enrolled in the rehab program.

After Dr. Moonda’s murder, the police tracked down Bradford and found him living near the rehab facility in an apartment with a lease that listed Mrs. Moonda as a cohabitant.  In that apartment, police found gifts from Mrs. Moonda to Bradford, along with six cell phones, a number of syringes, vials of injectable testosterone, bloody towels, and a t-shirt and sweat pants spattered in blood.

The police call Bradford “a person of interest” in the murder of Dr. Moonda. He has been arrested and jailed for parole violations and on drug possession charges.  Mrs. Moonda remains free.  She has hired a respected trial lawyer from Cleveland and no longer speaks to the press. Various DNA tests are underway.

Just last week, on August 1, a hiker found Dr. Moonda’s wallet 7 miles from the scene of his shooting.  Police have not disclosed the contents of the wallet, but report that highway workers recently found other personal items a few miles from the crime scene.

One of Dr. Moonda’s colleagues, Dr. Mohammed Rashid, has been quoted as saying of Moonda, “As a human being, he was the best you could find.”

Faroq Moonda and his wife are said to be devastated.

As fiction writers, we can spin a story that’s every bit as horrific as what happened to the Moonda family. I am sitting down this week, in fact, to create an outline for a new mystery I plan to write over the next nine months. As I work, I often find myself thinking about the Moondas.

In the light of their real pain and loss, it seems…what? Ghoulish? Cheap? Mercenary? to create a fictional murder with a villain horrible enough to kill, yet entertaining enough to sell books. And gee, wouldn’t it be nice to come up with a shocking story “good enough” for TV or a movie?

It’s not enough, is it, to simply tell a story from the point of view a clever—perhaps even wise-cracking--detective who solves a murder case?  It’s not enough to indulge in armchair psychology to dream up a bad guy capable of killing another human being. Do you conduct careful forensics homework? Get your police procedure correct?   Weapons facts right?  Of course you do. But that still doesn't feel like enough, does it?  It’s not even enough to create characters so convincing that we trigger real emotion in a reader when we bump them off.

It’s not enough until we find some further meaning in the events, the people and their motivations.

In reality, we can hear a story like the Moonda’s and say, “Sad, huh? Let’s hope the bad guys are punished.” 

In fiction, however, we must make such a story more meaningful. That’s our writer’s challenge.  Yes, we build a world, characters and narrative momentum to thoroughly engage our readers, but there must be something else hidden in our pages. Perhaps in the mystery genre—morality-based fiction to begin with—our task is a little easier than other kinds of books, but we are writing in an era when discerning readers demand something more than a simple resolution in which good guys triumph over evil.  It’s up to us to enrich our stories with the kind of significance and closure real life often lacks.

Perhaps that’s part of the definition of a “satisfying read.” If you’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about and you probably struggle with the challenge, too. Perhaps, as I am doing right now in planning my next book, you search carefully for the metaphor that will best communicate your themes as the events of your story unfold. You must conjure a controlling idea that binds your tale together. You hope your protagonist’s journey will leave your reader thinking about what your story means long after the book is closed. As I am still trying to find a purpose to Dr. Moonda’s death.

If you’re not a writer, maybe you’re still interested enough to learn more about Dr. Gulam Moonda. I think he was an admirable man.

Check out the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which provided the photos for this blog.  http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05156/516097.stm

Nancy

Comments

Nancy, your post today made me think of a meeting a few years ago. I’d been writing mysteries and trying to find an agent and a publisher for a several years when I met a man whose wife had been murdered. I saw his grief, his sorrow, and his lost first hand and I thought, “I’m trying to write a book about an amateur sleuth who solves a murder?” It seemed almost disrespectful. Real life is so messy, so horrible sometimes. But eventually, I’ve came to the conclusion that it is because real life is so messy and so horrible that people are drawn to mysteries. In fictional mysteries, good does win, evil is punished and everything comes out right in the end. Well, everything is changed and put back to rights as best it can be after a murder. But more than solving the crime and righting wrongs, the protag has changed, too. To create a story that shows evil for what it is, brings about justice, and reveals the journey of the characters--now that’s the kind of fiction I want to write!

Nancy:

I think you got to the heart of the matter with this line:

It’s up to us to enrich our stories with the kind of significance and closure real life often lacks.

Sad as Dr. Moonda's story is, it appears to have much clearer motives (and we will hope for a clear outcome) than many crimes in real life. Which is why crime fiction is comforting, IMO.

Good comments, ladies. As I write more books in my series, I find myself drawn to other themes, too. Evil that lurks in the culture of celebrity?--LOL! Next on my TBR stack is Laura Lippman's POWER OF THREE book, which I look forward to reading--primarily because I hear she's got a lot of themes cooking in the book.
Thanks for your comments.
N

Excellent post. I don't have anything to add other than man's capacity for both good and evil is astounding.

I worked with this man a long time ago. After hearing of this awful crime. I immediately thought this is going to be a book or on 20/20. It has all the elements, murder, sex, drugs, hidden pasts, etc... very sad, but it sells. He was a very private gentle man, and trusted only a few. I have my own opinion of who is involved & I belive the key word is "greed".

Please leave Damian out of it... if your goin to write a book or whatever.. just leave his name out of it. and doin't try to make him look like the bad guy

Please leave Damian out of it... if your goin to write a book or whatever.. just leave his name out of it. and doin't try to make him look like the bad guy

FREEE KAOS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You know something I worked for this man for almost 7 years. He was kind, funny, down to earth. You would know just by talking with him that he knew things before they would happen as he did on May 12,2005
So if any one wants to write about this thats fine but remember the reason you are writting is that the mystery to this is not one at all. As he would say "This is a Life Matter" never realized his famous quote would truly become his legacy we live by.

I JUST WANT TO START OFF BY SAYING GOD BLESS DR. MOONDA. OK NOW TO GET TO MY POINT, YES THIS WOULD MAKE A GOOD SELLING BOOK, BUT A CINFUSING ONE. I AM CONFUSED WHY THE WIFE ISN'T A "PERSON OF INTEREST". SHE JUST SO HAPPENED TO WANT TO STOP THE CAR AND SWITCH DRIVERS.... SHE COULD NOT GET A GOOD DESCRIPTION OF THE GUY SHE HAD AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP WITH OR EVEN RECOGNIZE HIS VOICE( I KNOW DAMIAN AND HE HAS A PRETTY DOMINANT VOICE)... SHE WAS IN THE PROCESS OF GOING THROUGH A DIVORCE..... SHE IS A DRUG ADDICT(WHICH ARE LIARS)..... ITS JUST VERY STRANGE TO ME WHY SHE ISN'T INVOLVED AT ALL. IS IT BECAUSE SHE HAS MONEY AND ALL THAT GOOD STUFF. ITS JUST NOT FAIR. YES DAMIAN HAS HAD ROUGH TIMES IN HIS LIFE, AND HAS DONE STUPID THINGS, AND THATS ALL THE NEWS AND THE PAPERS ARE GOING TO WRITE STORIES ABOUT, BUT WHAT THEY LEAVE OUT IS ALL THE WONDERFUL THINGS DAMIAN HAS DONE FOR PEOPLE. THE DAMIAN I KNOW AND WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER IS THE KIND OF GUY THAT BRINGS A SMILE TO YOUR FACE, THE KIND OF GUY WHO WILL GIVE YOU THE SHIRT OFF HIS BACK IF IT IS RAINING,THE KIND OF GUY YOU NEVER WANT TO LOSE AS A FRIEND... PLEASE EVERYONE THAT READS THIS, DON'T BELIEVE ALL THE STUFF THE NEWS SAYS, BECAUSE THEY WILL ONLY LIST THE NEGATIVE STUFF, AND JUST REMEMBER DAMIAN IS A HUMAN BEING ALSO, AND HE DESERVES HIS CHANCE.

im sorry to add to my comment above, Damian has a walk that is his own walk. i know myself i can tell the way someone walks before I even recognize the person.....

Ill Still Talk To Damian Till This Day.. In Jail Or Not.. And In My Heart He'll Always Be Innocent.. Free Kaos!* *Love You*

*Free Kaos!*.... he didn't do it! so for all the people out there that are sayin he is a killer. need to leave him alone!

Free Kaos! Regardless of the outcome Damian will always be one of my best friends. To all of those who support him, Stay positive!!!

The community where Dr. Moonda once lived has been shook to the core from this awful event. Everyone has been waiting for justice to be served. Our small local newspaper has done a wonderful job keeping the community updated. The Trail started today. Bradford will most likely plead guilty and testify against Donna for a plea bargain.

hI nANCY, i LIVE IN sHARON, pa AND WAS A PATIENT OF dr mOONDA, WHAT WAS SAID ABOUT HIM IN THE PRESS WAS ALL TRUE. HE WAS ONE OF THE NICEST MEN THAT YOU WOULD HAVE EVER WANTED TO CALL A FRIEND. HE TREATED HIS PATIENTS LIKE FAMILY, YOU COULD CALL HIM AT HOME ANY HOUR OF THE DAY OR NIGHT. FROM THE MOMENT OF HIS MURDER I FELT IT IN MY HEART AND SOUL HIS WIFE WAS THE ONE BEHIND IT. I AM HOPING THAT THEY THROW THE BOOK AT HER, I KNOW I SOUND TERRIBLE BUT I CAN'T HELP IT. IT'S THE FEELING ALL THE PEOPLE THAT KNEW DR. MOONDA HAVE FOR HER. I READ YOUR PIECE AND I THINK IT HAS THE MAKINGS OF A GOOD NOVEL. GO FOR IT AND MAKE THE SETTING REAL TIME AND PLACE. MAY THE GODS BE WITH YOU AND YOURS.........BILL

Its obvious that Dr Moonda did not deserve this tragic end. Hope justice will be served in the end.

I dated Gulam Moonda when I was in nursing school and he was a resident. He was a very nice, gentle man, and what happened to him is horrible. Donna Moonda deserves the death penalty and I only hope the prosecuting attorney is better than the defense. It doesn't seem to matter, in our court system, if someone is guilty or not, but just the dramatics of the attornies. I am amazed that everyone thought them the perfect couple. His nephew was fooled along with everyone else. She had a secret life and was faking that her marriage was happy. Donna Moonda was quite the actress I guess. Sickening what a greedy woman she was!

I was incarcerated with Donna Mooda and all I can say is....CRAZY! She is very weird.

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